Economic downturn be damned, every week, millions of viewers tune in to Bravo to revel in the despicable conspicuous consumption of an assortment of surgically manipulated, humanity deficient housewives from an assortment of major American cities.
Audiences flock to Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise for many of the same reasons that they celebrated "The O.C." or "Dallas" or "Dynasty" or even "Revenge": Soap operas about the wealthy feed appetites that are simultaneously wish fulfillment and outsider hostility. On one hand, they're the living embodiments of the American Dream, no matter the source of their money. On the other hand, they're awful people and if we can't slap them or throw them in swimming pools or topple their houses of cards, it's a pleasure to watch somebody else do it.
Rich people suck, but damned if we wouldn't all want to spend a while in their shoes.
Or would we?
Lauren Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles
," the Opening Night US Documentary competition entry at the Sundance
Film Festival, starts off as a somewhat campy, candy-colored look at the outlandish life of the least real Real Housewife imaginable. But over 100 minutes, it turns the "Real Housewives" formula upside down and it becomes possibly the least tragic epic tragedy ever constructed. What begins as an easy, uncluttered source for envy and derision becomes something confusing and possibly challenging.
By the end of "The Queen of Versailles," I wasn't viewing the characters the way they viewed themselves and I'm not sure if I was viewing them the way Greenfield was viewing them. I was viewing them through a prism tilted by contemporary economic events, but also countless hours of reality TV.
I found the result to be an fascinating muddle of reactions that couldn't be more contemporary and couldn't be more American, which I guess I hope was Greenfield's ultimate intent.
More after the break...
"The Queen of Versailles" is the story of David and Jackie Siegel. David is the Time-Share King at the head of the Westgate empire. Jackie is a former IBM engineer who decided to flee a bleak existence in Upstate New York to pursue dreams that eventually led to a career in modeling, a run as Mrs. Florida and a family with eight kids, most under the age of 12.
As we start, David and Jackie have decided that their 26,000 square foot Florida mansion is now insufficient to their family's needs, so they decide to build a new home, inspired by an impressively tacky combination of Versailles Palace and the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. By the time they've set aside space for the bowling alley, the ballroom, a separate wing for the kids and an observation deck with a nightly view of the Disney World fireworks, their version of Versailles has become a 90,000 square foot monstrosity, the biggest house under a single roof in the country. Nobody mentions a price tag for this insanity and Jackie even refers to it as "a lifetime achievement award" for David.
David and Jackie aren't the most appealing of subjects.
He makes his money preying on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of middle class and lower middle class families. As he puts it, "Everybody wants to be rich. And if they can't be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich." Ick. He's a slimy gladhander who takes entirely too much pride in his role in swinging the 2000 election in George W. Bush's favor.
She's a bleached blonde who has used her newfound wealth to over-indulge her former independence and intelligence into submission. When you see her riding a power-boat in a fur coat, or check out the two deceased dogs she keeps stuffed in prominent places in the house, your "sympathy" valve will probably be shut off permanently.
The comes September of 2008 and suddenly the construction of a sprawling compound on a private isthmus isn't nearly so financially practical. And suddenly mortgaging all of your properties and pouring the money into a Vegas monument to opulence is no longer feasible.
Suddenly, the private jets cost too much to gas up and $2000 tubs of caviar are exorbitant.
Suddenly, these two people who have been living with all of the self-awareness of Pinocchio on Pleasure Island are forced to reexamine everything in their lives and in their marriage. Farewell to the household staff of 20. Farewell to ritzy private schools. Farewell to the security.
See what I mean by "the least tragic epic tragedy ever constructed"?
It's easy to watch "The Queen of Versailles" from a malicious perspective and even easier to watch with gleeful schadenfreude. These are people who are utterly impossible to pity and every bit of their downfall has been self-inflicted. If you spend the first 40 minutes of the documentary cackling and rolling your eyes in bemusement, you can spend the last hour smirking and giggling malevolently.
I think that will be the most prevalent reaction and it definitely isn't "wrong," per se. These are obnoxious people and expecting audiences, even audiences in the rarified air of Park City, to sympathize with a family that represents the top 1 percent of the 1 percent isn't a great idea in 2012. And there will be one interpretation of "The Queen of Versailles" that calls it a revenge fantasy for the 99 percent, since that's the vernacular people want to use this week. I think, though, that it's the easy reaction. I don't think Greenfield is going for a reaction that simple, though.
Greenfield, who cut her teeth as a photographer, combines with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz to treat the early part of the movie like wealth porn. Jackie and David are introduced posing for pictures on a shiny gold throne. Every marble surface glistens. Even though its a mere skeleton of a home, their Versailles has unavoidable glamour and the Vegas site is full of glitz. Greenfield may not want us to like her subjects, but she definitely wants us to get off on their wealth. This is "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" stuff, but shot by a top notch shutterbug.
As the film progresses, though, Robinson strips away the gloss and mutes the color. As the detritus of the Siegels' lives transitions from costly antiques to crusty dog poop, the camera mirrors their decline. The central couple, initially so welcoming and friendly are depicted more frequently from a distance, as if estranged. I don't know if Greenfield wallows in the misery, but she doesn't flinch from it.
And, to their credit, the Siegels don't cut off Greenfield's access. As David descends into what is probably clinical depression, he keeps sitting down for interview segments as he puts on weight, as he stops caring about his hair and as he begins to become monomaniacally obsessed with retaining his former stature. As Jackie admits, David is more open with the camera than he is with her. And for her part, Jackie goes the opposite way, accentuating her implants more, relying heavily on Botox and tanning. These are two people who are dealing with their situation in totally different ways and with no awareness of how the other is coping (or failing to) and if you can forget, for a second, their status, you might accidentally feel something from their estrangement. No matter how things change for these two people, their lack of self-awareness is consistent.
You'll definitely feel something in Greenfield's depiction of the Siegels' multi-national crew of domestics, from their chauffeur to their legion of nannies. In the moments with the servants, as we see that actual people are hurt by the Siegels' plight, you can sense a "Downton Abbey"-ified version of this story that Greenfield only hints at. Their genuine alienation/immersion in this world of wealth is instantly relatable, so some viewers will be frustrated by their marginalization when Greenfield is more interested in letting the Siegels blame the banks for ruining their life.
Greenfield also can't quite figure out how to handle the Siegels' menagerie of children, a decision that may or may not mirror Jackie's own failing/detachement as a mother. Only two of the eight kids are even named, much less given talking head time. I'm assuming Greenfield let the kids slide because of their youth and then didn't want to over-focus on the couple she could interview, but I wish the movie could have found more time for Jonquil, effectively a foster child plucked from poverty, to trace her infection and transformation within this world. Also worthy of more screentime is Jackie's old high school chum, who envies her pal's life, but kinda doesn't.
"I would love to have more money," the friend reflects, "But I don't know if I'd want that much. My dreams don't go that big."
That may be the theme that Greenfield is pushing, though I'm not at all happy with the inference that the Spiegels are like modern day Icaruses.
As I've been reflecting on "The Queen of Versailles" for this review, I'll make a confession: I'm no longer convinced that the conflicted response to the film, a response I found so interesting, was wholly intentional on Greenfield's part. My interest in "Versailles" stems from what I'm viewing as a critique of the audience's obsession with wealth, an obsession fueled by the sort of reality shows and narrative soap operas that this documentary may or may not be in conversation with. So I liked "The Queen of Versailles," but if I reflect on it for too long, I may or may not decide that I like it for the wrong reasons.