Reporting Bill Wine
By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s a riches-to-rags story. But what luxurious rags!
Just in case the Occupy movement’s political slogan, “We are the 99%,” has remained elusively hypothetical, here’s a movie about the remaining 1% that will bring the concept home in the same way that a runaway pickup truck crashes through a living room window.
The Queen of Versailles is a fascinating, bet-you-can’t-look-away documentary about David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire couple from Orlando, Fla.
More than thirty years younger than her fabulously wealthy septuagenarian husband, trophy wife and title character Jackie is a former Mrs. Florida.
Known as “The Timeshare King,” David is the founder of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share operation in the world.
The Siegels decide that the enormous house they’re living in is too tiny, so they start to build the largest single-family house under one roof in the nation by constructing a palace modeled on Versailles (almost too perfect a metaphor given Jackie’s Marie Antoinetteish haughtiness), with ten kitchens, 25 bathrooms, and an ice skating rink.
Their pride in this undertaking is undoubtedly what has motivated them to cooperate on this film project. But then, they didn’t know what was coming.
The Siegels have a private plane, a fleet of chauffeur-driven limos, and a personal staff of 19 for them and their eight children. And they pal around with the rich and famous and politically connected.
Yeah, just like us.
Their obliviousness to the way the other “half” (that is, 99 percent) lives is staggering, and the director doesn’t have to do much selfconscious juxtaposition editing to make that point. Watching the way these folks spend money and raise their kids leaves little room for misinterpretation.
However, the Siegels’ at-times brutal honesty -– mixed in with the rationalizations and compromises and hypocrisies and self-delusions — earns them a measure of respect, even as their behavior and surroundings distance us from them.
But contempt and antipathy don’t come as easily as you might think.
When the global financial collapse of 2008 and subsequent recession interrupts their extravagant lifestyle, seemingly sending them spiraling down as their house-of-cards commercial empire crumbles, it doesn’t even vaguely resemble the way ordinary people’s lives are affected by the money crisis.
Let’s face it: there’s being on a budget and there’s being on a budget. Hey, it’s not easy getting comfortable only having millions when you’ve gotten so used to billions.
I mean, have a heart!
Similarly to the banks, Westgate has been selling subprime-mortgaged timeshare vacations to folks who obviously cannot afford them unless they can get cheap loans. And even then. So there’s a taste-of-their-own-medicine feeling that accompanies this development.
And when Jackie says, at one point, that the government bailouts were supposed to go to “the common people … us,” your eyes will roll right out of their sockets.
Still, while we watch the Siegels get what we might ordinarily consider their comeuppance, their flawed and shared humanity registers in surprising ways. It’s not as easy to dismiss their head-in-the-clouds wrongheadedness as we thought it would be.
The second feature-length film by documentarian Lauren Greenfield (Thin) was shot over a three-year period and shifted its tone and focus, willy nilly, when the financial crisis changed everything. The director’s intent -– to tell her story from the point of view of the one-percent perch -– had to change, but not as drastically as might have been expected.
For as much as we might try to distance ourselves from the Siegels’ outrageous behavior at home and at work, we realize that their urges aren’t that different from ours (if, that is, we had access to all that moolah).
So we’ll spend 3 stars out of 4 for the remarkably complex and surprisingly revealing when-billionaires-go-broke documentary, The Queen of Versailles.
Question: Is this a portrait of the American dream or the American nightmare?