December 24, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Watching The Queen of Versailles is like watching the Bluth family from Arrested Development, except there's no endearing insanity to humanize Jackie and David Siegel, a rich Orlando couple with seven children. Siegel made all his money in the timeshare industry. At his peak, he owned nearly 30 resorts in 11 different states. The documentary chronicles their life over nearly a four-year period, from the silver spoon days to the unexpected economic downturn following 2008's financial meltdown.

Jackie is the star of the documentary. She was born in Binghampton, New York, got a degree in engineering, but left her job to become a model. She's in her early 40s now, but her oversized boobs, clearly not the work of God alone, are a testament to a living that has been made on looks rather than personality or brains. This isn't to say that Jackie is a total dumb-dumb. Being filthy rich has certainly dulled her out, but there's a sense that Jackie does have intelligence. It's just not a quality she's been relying on over the last fifteen years. She's an amalgam: a small-town American girl turned beauty queen turned trophy wife, with enough kids to warrant a pointless reality TV show.

The title refers to a 90,000 square-foot home being built by Siegel. It's modeled after Versailles, and is the biggest house in the United States, complete with 10 kitchens, an ice skating rink, and a baseball field. After Siegel's company begins to lose money, the house goes into foreclosure. The current Siegel home is considerably large to begin with, but with their extravagant spending habits, it's overcrowded with stuff.

The Queen of Versailles has been getting a lot of praise from critics, presumably because it captures the sickening allure of materialism that has made so many rich people unhappy with their lives, but addicted to the money and the prominence and possessions that come with being rich. What ultimately is bound up in this lifestyle of the insanely rich is a need for more money, generally pried from the hands of middle-class folks, lured into buying pricey timeshares they can't afford by Siegel's persuasive sales staff. This is the kind of behavior that got us into the recession, so The Queen of Versailles is a remarkably apt depiction, zeroing in on one millionaire (or was it billionaire?), who's so rich he brags about fixing the Bush elections with surprising nonchalance.

You're likely to find this interesting, but depressing. The Siegel's unashamed extravagance--the very behavior that once moved an entire class of people to behead their own leaders--feels particularly maddening when you consider that so many other Americans look upon their lifestyle with envy, thinking, "if only it were me."

Directed by Lauren Greenfield. 100 min. Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix.

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