The Queen of Versailles and the American Dream


The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about the Siegels, the family that is constructing the largest, most expensive (~$100 million) home in America. I like laughing at dumb 1%-ers, so I figured it'd be right up my alley. Indeed, I found those laughs when the protagonist fails to realize that it's demeaning to dress her nanny up in a full Rudolph costume to entertain Christmas party guests, when she gives a tour of her lavish home and says seemingly negligent things like, "This is the staircase I would come up if I was going to visit the children," and when she goes to an average car rental business (think Enterprise) and is surprised to learn the vehicle doesn't come with a chauffeur. In addition to the laughs, though, I was surprised to discover how much depth the film has.

Yup, there's depth to be found even in the shallowest of subjects, namely Jackie Siegel. She survived a childhood of poverty and an abusive first marriage and later became a beauty queen and trophy wife to a time-share tycoon. Jackie's new lifestyle has made her a pretty ridiculous person. You can't help but judge her dress, decor, priorities, and interactions. Jackie's so clueless, however, that she fails to realize anyone would judge her for such things… or feel anything but admiration for her wealth, for that matter.

It all plays out sort of like an episode of Bravo's The Real Housewives, although you need not be a fan of the franchise to enjoy this film. That's because it's not just about superficiality - it's about the American dream. It's a critique of how we idolize wealth and material possessions and assume our lives would be so much better if we could literally have it all. The Siegels have accomplished what most Americans aspire to… and they are no happier for it. If anything, they seem pretty unhappy.

This is evidenced by the Siegels' niece, who the family takes in after learning she's been living in squalor. The way she changes in the transition from filthy poor to filthy rich are mostly discernible through subtext, but she does a decent job of explaining it herself: She was initially appreciative to have a more secure life, but then she "got used to" getting everything she wanted so now she just finds new reasons to be miserable.

The niece is one of nine kids, by the way. The other eight all came out of Jackie's own (well, plastic surgery-enhanced) body. She said she initially only wanted one kid, but when she was able to hire a slew of nannies, there was no incentive to stop reproducing. In that sense, her breeding practices mimic her shopping habits: she just keeps buying anything and everything (even duplicates - how many Operation board games does one family need?) because she doesn't have to take on any responsibility. Meanwhile, the kids are adopting similar tendencies - collecting dozens of pets and killing some due to neglect. 

Partway through the film, the economy crashes and the time-share business takes a major dive. Even (near?-)billionaires like the Siegels are suddenly put under financial constraints and their pricy mansion goes into foreclosure. While selling their dream home would be the best option, as you might expect, the market for $100 million homes is non-existent.

Suddenly, the Siegels are just like us. The movie even helps draw the parallels for you: one of Jackie's childhood friends needs just a few thousand dollars to save her home from foreclosure, but even when she gets the funds, the bank decides to repossess the home anyway. And then there's one of the Siegel's domestic workers whose lifelong dream is to be a homeowner. By her own suggestion, she settles for taking over a cramped kids' playhouse in the backyard and could not be happier to have a place to call her own. 

One thing I appreciate about the documentary is that they don't make Jackie look like an asshole. It'd be easy - probably even tempting - to have done that, but you can still tell that she's well-intentioned even if she's too out-of-touch to be of much help to anyone. She's just a victim of her circumstances. Yeah, I know it's funny to call someone who is insanely wealthy a "victim", but in Jackie's case, I believe it to be true. I also believe her when she says she would be just as happy to scale back and live with her whole family in a one-bedroom apartment. Or well, I believe that she really believes that anyway. Old habits die hard. Understanding that she must now live on a limited budget, Jackie starts shopping at Walmart… yet still drops thousands of dollars on frivolous items.

Even though her ideals are drastically different from my own, I couldn't help but root for Jackie - maybe not to become super rich again, but to figure it out and pursue genuine contentment. I can't say the same about Jackie's husband, David. He does come across as an asshole, but I wouldn't blame the edit for that. It's hard to like a guy who refuses to spend time with his family, sexually harasses the Miss America contestants he invites to his home, tells his wife that he's going to trade her in for two 20 year-olds when she turns 40, and boasts that he illegally rigged the presidential election for George W. Bush.

Though we see less of David, he may be even more fascinating than Jackie. The man is corporate America. Due to his own humble beginnings, David was motivated to succeed later in life, assuming it would bring him the joy he was missing. When that didn't happen, rather than trying to find a different route, he figured he just needed to succeed even more, despite the fact that he already financially accomplished more than 99.99999% of people ever would. Alas, in pushing for even greater profits, David winds up gambling it all away.

Although David feels superior to his loyal wife and openly shows contempt for her, he's really not that much different than Jackie in that he is also entirely about appearances. He builds a gigantic house not to live in, but to impress others. He amasses a big family not to love, but to show off. He expands his business not because it's strategic, but so he can put his name on more buildings. Undoubtedly, David initially invited the film crew into his home because he knew he could convey an enviable life even if he didn't really have one. By the end, however, David is openly miserable, in large part because the narrative has evolved to that of a family that was formerly successful. When a man focuses on establishing a legacy rather than living a life that brings him actual joy, he is bound to become hostile when that legacy is exposed as a mirage. What good is being elite if people realize they wouldn't want to trade places with you after all?

What an accurate representation of the current, misguided American dream. And what a compelling argument for why we need to finally wake up from it. 


Adam F said...

I was forced to defend why I liked this documentary recently.

I didn't do as good of a job as you did.

Good work!

Kevin said...

Was it Ted? I can see Ted not caring for it. It couldn't be Alex, he likes everything.