“Through these hallowed gates…”
These are the words uttered by David Siegel, ‘The Timeshare King’, gazing off into the middle distance as he pictures his dream house: a sprawling bomb-blast of nouveau riche pomp and bombast. It’s a taste abomination that could only have been conceived in the peculiar vacuum of imagination opened in the heads of the Babyboomers by the day-glo visions of that liar Disney and his tepid concept of romance, aspirational living and happy endings. It’s a particular version of an even greater mistruth: the infamous ‘American Dream’ (Happy Endings R’ Us), which stipulates that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard, play hard and consume consume consume.
After a pause it’s clear that nothing else is coming. David Siegel’s head is pleasantly empty. The words hang in the air, a grandiose sentiment that Siegel is able to start but powerless to finish. He’s clearly bamboozled by this sudden reminder of words’ flightiness; he doesn’t wield the same influence over mock-poetic language as he does over people and things. There’s a hint of impotent desperation somewhere behind his eyes as he glances furtively at the camera, as though on some level he’s aware of playing a part – that of himself – and has no desire to be playing it.
Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a cheekily-edited documentary charting the epic fall from grace (American grace – ie. wealth) of one of America’s richest entrepreneurs, his extravagent wife Jackie (the ‘Queen’ of the title), and their large family of children, maids and pets is a good film that could have been great, but falls victim to that same need for tidy allegory that demands there be such things as happy endings. In this case the ‘happy’ ending is the moral ending – where David is shown the error of his greedy materialist ways by the advent of a crisis beyond his control. From unintentionally hilarious characters having not a care in the world, the impact of ‘The Crash’ both humbles and humanises the Siegels, bringing them to the level of ordinary people like you or I.
We watch with a certain glee as bumbling David and former beauty queen Jackie are forced to ‘adjust’ to a life within reason – a life without a private jet, without a team of housekeepers, without continuous spending on frivolous items (which Jackie, in a constant rapture of materialist desire, continues to do). Cleverly, Greenfield uses interviews with the Filipino maids, Jackie’s adopted daughter and David’s estranged son, as well as various other interconnected characters to create a rich tapestry of opinion and experience that acts as a commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the couples’ life as they go from oblivious (with some moments so ludicrous they might have been scripted by Christopher Guest) to humbled, emotionally vulnerable and relatable. The building of their personal palace is put on hold as David struggles to hold things together, a fittingly symbolic state of affairs mirroring the struggle of ordinary Americans.
Except, of course, their lives aren’t the lives of ordinary Americans. What is shown but not explicitly commented upon is that, despite their apparent poverty (see the dog shit on the carpets, the dying pets left to starve in the absence of maids) Jackie continues to spend sums that most people could only dream of. What is not shown (Greenfield deliberately chose to cease filming at a point of financial uncertainty for the family) is that just after the events depicted David managed to turn things around. He’s now happily ripping people off with crappy timeshare apartments in much the same way as he was before. In humanising them, Greenfield defends the Siegels as much as she mocks them. They clearly don’t want or need her validation; the added irony being that David Siegel, in addition to resuming work on Versailles, is now suing for defamation of character– two rampantly egotistical moves that conveniently sum up the total lack of perspective he was supposed to have gained according to the film’s narrative.
Greenfield has said in interviews that she chose not to continue filming to leave the film as ‘a parable’, which, as a natural fan of this film, was incredibly disappointing to hear; I had felt that this was an important piece of work, something that should be shown to the Trumps, Camerons and Osbournes, Romneys, Sugars and Greenes – all the posh boys and self-made men who don’t give two shits about the people they left behind or never knew. I can’t help but feel that consciously leaving something so important out undermines the strength of the argument, rendering a great deal of meaning the film might have had void.
Having said all that, The Queen of Versailles is still very much worth a watch, especially for the unintentional comedy of the opening half hour. Greenfield has been called a sociological photographer for her work in stills – as director she acts very much like the arch sociologist, crowbarring meaning onto situations and events that don’t necessarily have inherent meaning, to portray the world in the light she’s clearly already decided she wants it to be seen. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it honest? Not really.
The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.