Let Them Eat Cake, by Matt Warren
How rich is too rich? The line between “comfort” and “shit-eating decadence” can be drawn pretty much anywhere. If you define being rich as simply “having enough money”, then who is? Take me, for example. I’ve worked steadily in a salaried job for many years, gotten raises, saved, bought a house, the whole shebang. Amazing shit I wouldn’t have even dreamed of eight years ago when I was sleeping on the floor of a cockroach-infested basement studio in Hollywood and lying about non-existent job applications on my latest unemployment form. And how much do I worry about money now, compared to then? About the same. As a great African poet once said, “mo money, mo problems”—and if you ever doubted this, Lauren Greenfield’s wonderful new documentary The Queen of Versailles will disabuse you of your misconceptions.
Greenfield’s subjects are David and Jackie Siegel. He’s a billionaire Floridian timeshare mogul. She’s a boobsy, sneakily shrewd trophy wife thirty years his junior. Both grew up poor and are self-made one-percenters. Together, they dreamed of building the largest private residence in the history of American real estate: a 60,000 square-foot pleasure palace complete with indoor pool, bowling alley, and performance stage. We’re talking walk-in shoe closets as labyrinthine as Hitler’s Führerbunker, and very nearly as sinister. It was a home the Siegels dubbed “Versailles,” after a popular Cuban restaurant on La Cienega. Had it been completed, it would’ve made Charles Kane’s Xanadu look like Leisure World—an awesome/deplorable shrine to the lowbrow, new money tastes of Middle America. But things didn’t quite work out that way.
I don’t know if you heard, but a couple years back there was something approaching a bit of a “financial crisis” in this country. Hard to believe, I know, but remember that loud crunching noise you heard outside the window circa 2008? That was the American Dream collapsing into ashy viscous all around you. Initially, the Siegels seemed exactly like the kind of rich assholes who’d never be affected by something as trivial as America’s Ceaseless And Irreversible Decline. But capitalism is a vein that carries poison both ways, and the fact of the matter is that the Siegels—like many Americans—were paying for their lifestyle with money that simply didn’t exist.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but I bet that when the Recession finally hit, Greenfield and her collaborators—who, until then, had merely been filming a fluff piece about Siegel mansion’s construction—were secretly high-fiving each other in the production office. Overnight, their movie suddenly became something much different and much more profound. Cameras rolling, Jackie and David were forced to make the harsh downshift from billionaires to millionaires, shedding staff and watching the still-empty Versailles fall into disrepair.
Greenfield is wise to empathize with the Siegels rather than mock them or revel in their (relative) hardship. It helps that the family is, despite everything, totally likable. David is about as sympathetic as a billionaire Republican timeshare mogul is ever likely to get, but the real rock star here is Jackie. The titular Queen of her world, Jackie is the sort of character where, were she fictional, the actress playing her would rack up so many award nominations you’d feel drunk just thinking about it. Despite her aging-bimbo exterior, Jackie reveals herself to be surprisingly complex; she’s a ditz who’s also the smartest, most self-aware person in the room.
The key, I think, to the whole film is a quick scene wherein Jackie takes a trip to McDonalds to grab some chicken McNuggets from the drive-thru. Her choice of conveyance for this mission? A stretch limo which, in her naiveté, Jackie uses totally earnestly. She’s not trying to show off, this is simply how Jackie Siegel gets around to places, including McDonalds. F. Scott Fitzgerald himself couldn’t have come up with a more perfectly calibrated metaphor for the American upper class. He’s probably watching an Academy screener of this in Hell and shaking his fist.
The Queen of Versailles is one of the best films of the year, nonfiction or otherwise. In her feature debut, Greenfield has pulled together a meaningful, entertaining film about a once great nation at a major turning point. Here’s hoping this film makes her anything but rich.