dir: Lauren Greenfield
It takes a certain kind of character to handle being wealthy and powerful. Few people have the stones for it. It’s not for common mortals like us to be rich and famous, no. We would buckle under the tremendous weight of such awful responsibility. The rest of us peasants should be grateful that we don’t live under the dread of such burdens.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a downside for these brave people. They have to develop heroic defence mechanisms to protect themselves from the harshness of reality and the envy of the lower orders. As an example, you might have noticed that whenever a celebrity or wealthy person does something obviously, demonstrably wrong, then any criticism levelled at them is dismissed as hate from the “haters”. Haters, you see, are the envious, poisonous masses who dream up all sorts of untrue perfidy in order to bring down their betters. It’s the only explanation.
It’s the only way to make sense of a reality that previously seemed to bend to your every whim. If things always seemed to go your way because you were powerful and top of your game, and that your self-directed wilful free ride somehow ends, it’s because of the haters. It can’t be because you did something wrong, ever. It can’t be that you were complicit in a corrupt system, never that.
It can never be you, because you are still an exemplary embodiment of awesomeness, and being brought low would be impossible unless all the Lilliputians ganged up simultaneously to bring you down. They’re always waiting, their resentment building, hungering for that perfect moment to exact their pound of flesh.
We call it ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ here in this great wide brown land of ours known as Ostraya. Of course, the people invariably who’ve used the phrase to demonise their detractors, singular titans of industry like Alan Bond, Alan Jones, Kerry Packer, Matthew Newton, Sam Newman, Martin Bryant (probably), were or still are singular, unrepentant pieces of shit who’ve never acknowledged the awful stuff they’ve done and will never admit they were at fault at any point for anything awful that they did in their lives. We’re talking about bullies, sadists, domestic abusers, liars, thieves and complete arseholes, for whom anything bad that happened to them is solely because of someone else’s envy.
The Queen of Versailles is about neither the actual palace of Versailles, or the Queen of such, who doesn’t exist. It’s about some people who were extremely wealthy, who are now only rich. They were so wealthy before that they wanted to build a replica of Versailles in Orlando, Florida, across the swamp from Disney World, and they started building it, pouring in 75 or so million dollars of cheap, borrowed money, as a tremendous ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the world.
And why did they have to build a concrete McMansion version of Versailles? Because they could. Did it have to be a place with 30 bathrooms? Well, yes. Why not, you filthy communist? Who are you to say whether they should have 25 bathrooms or 35 bathrooms? Who are you to impose your will on people clearly better and more American than you, you low income nobodies?
I can’t really imagine that there was any other emotions the director and the producers of this documentary imagined they would elicit from an audience other than sheer disgust and that most glorious of German-titled emotions: schadenfreude; which is, to take malicious or smug pleasure in the misfortune of another.
For our schadenfreude to not make us feel too uncomfortable, the targets have to be particularly worthy, and I think they chose wisely in selecting these strange, horrible people. The thing is, you can see that in different circumstances, like with people who out of desperation take hostages or who get into crystal meth, they might have turned out differently and there’s a chance they might have been decent human beings. But as with Michael Jackson, or Howard Hughes, or Elizabeth Taylor, wealth can warp people into twisted, alien forms.
The director was incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for this story to have a greater resonance and greater significance other than just portraying how truly divorced from reality wealthy, powerful people can sometimes be. Sure, that’s how it starts out, with Jackie Siegel, an absurdly over-inflated former beauty queen turned paragon of the elites, giving us the tour of Versailles 2, telling us where the five million dollars worth of marble is stored, where the albino peacocks and ice skating rink and bowling alley are going to be installed, and where they’re going to put the butterscotch slide and the Oompa-Loompas, but the catastrophic impact of the global financial crisis means we then get to see these people turn from smug arseholes with their superior airs, to embittered and fearful arseholes as well.
They can’t have planned that. The delicious irony as well is that it’s people like the smug bastard at the centre of the story is part of the reason for the global financial crisis in the first place. We are given ample evidence to see that a mogul who made his millions from selling crappy swampland timeshare properties and tacky Vegas properties that look like the mood rooms from a mid-range brothel to people who can’t afford them, and then being bitten in the arse by the debt collateralisation that ensued is the most perfect example of poetic irony we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes.
That one of the central kinds of shonky dealers who feel compelled to wreck the mighty economic institution called capitalism for the rest of us is ultimately undone by the financial instruments (like collateralised debt obligations and the other forms of mortgage bundling) created to feather even more nests out of worthless paper-assets is accidentally the central subject of such a documentary means that no-one could have planned this better.
In the first part of the doco, when David Siegel is still top of the world, he has the balls, the gall, to sit in a tacky French throne as he is interviewed. He looks hale and hearty, like a man in control of his destiny, for whom advanced years have not yet dulled his lust for life. He has a much younger wife, a former beauty queen with absurd implants that never look human, and he hosts beauty pageants presumably because he wants a nearby pool of future trophy wives. He is a man comfortable with being envied, who delights in it because he imagines men across America would sell their firstborn children into slavery in order to have a fraction of what he was.
He is, he would believe, the embodiment of the American Dream, except he forgets that Willy Loman from Death of a Salesmen is also the literal embodiment of the American Dream, and look how that turned out for the poor fucker.
Siegel also has the gall to brag that if it hadn’t been for him personally, former President ‘Jerky Boy’ George W. Bush wouldn’t have won the 2000 election. What evidence does he provide for this startling factoid? He’d rather not say, because it was probably illegal, but the smug shit-eating grin on his face speaks volumes. Of course he didn’t have anything to do with it (unless he’s implying that he bribed certain Supreme Court judges, in which case burn in hell Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just kidding), but his projected certainty that the world dances to his tune is delightful and sickening.
This man thinks he can decide the outcomes of the presidential elections of the greatest democracy the world has ever seen (except for all the other better ones that are actual democracies)? Of course we want him to fall flat on his fucking smug face. And gods damn, does he gift us with a faceplant of epic proportions. The global financial crisis hits, the steady supply of ‘cheap money’ money dries up, and every single thing this charlatan has built on swampy sand or the Nevadan promise of sleaze starts falling apart.
We don’t see him sitting on that Louis XIV replica throne anymore. Now we see the old, grumpy, bitter old man sit on the couch in his den, a room which he’s set up such that no-one member of his massive family can really spend any time in it with him. He slumps on that couch like a bean bag himself, all that life having bled out of him. I’m guessing George W. Bush isn’t returning his calls, which is probably why he’s bitching at his family about the electricity bill.
And the rest of the family has to make do with making what they feel are sacrifices. Fewer limousines. No more private jets. The house staff reduces from 19 to 4. Oh, how to endure the ravages of misfortune with only 4 Filipino maids and nannies! I wouldn’t be able to get through a single day without someone muttering under their breath in Tagalog before having to loudly exclaim “Madam look so wonderful in tube top yes yes!”
It’s amazing that all the wealth they might have had and whatever remains of it now hasn’t ennobled them in any way, hasn’t really elevated them from the white trash that they clearly somehow are despite the billions or millions that have flowed through their fingers. It almost doesn’t make sense, considering that we’re talking about intelligent people. Even Jackie, who seems like a parody of a trophy wife, like she’s playing a character rather than being this person she seems to wear like a costume, despite the absurdity of her oversized implants (which might not have been her idea anyway), is clearly an intelligent woman pretending to be a bimbo because she thinks what will maintain her husband’s waning interest.
She earned an engineering degree before deciding that the life of the body would prove far more lucrative than the life of the mind, which is a damn shame. She could have achieved any number of things herself in her life, any number of which would have been superior to a 48-year old woman in daisy dukes getting her face burned by a laser to maintain the illusion of youth. What happened to the massive brain this woman must have had at some point? How does a woman clearly more intelligent that her loathsome husband end up at his mercy, when she should have been the one making the plays, finding the angles, possibly making better decisions that wouldn’t have resulted in so much of their fortune ending up in the Christmas bonuses of so many Wall Street shitheels?
The conspicuous, compulsive consumption doesn’t abate no matter how many banks circle to pick off the remnants of Siegel’s shitty empire, and we are privy to absurd shopping trips where the central woman buys multiples of the same chintzy stuff just so it can be piled on to more stuff. And the kids don’t care, most of whom we don’t get to know, most of whom seem like if they don’t end up in rehab or with hideous body issues by the time they’re twelve, it’ll be both miraculous and absolutely no thanks to their hideous parents.
The weakest bits of the doco involve the kinds of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a very loathsome reality tv program, and in fact I got the feeling that Jackie was hoping this was like her audition reel, as if a weekly reality program would doubtless ensue once their fortunes picked up again. Scenes where she asks where the driver is for her rental car, the car she clearly rented on her own, as if to say either how dumb she is or how little she understands the ‘real’ world, and even the compulsive shopping at Walmart or the contrived arguments with dear hubbie David were clearly set ups and make her look bad, in deliberate and inexplicable ways.
Maybe these people lack self-awareness, maybe that comes from being so isolated from the rest of humanity for long enough to think you’re a different species, but part of it is a form of self-flagellation in public which goes against their seeming belief that the world owes them some worship for how wonderful they are.
I could go on and on about The Queen of Versailles. I don’t think I’ve seen a documentary like it. So many moments in this movie illuminate so much about what’s wrong with the whole system in the States that further argument is superfluous. It has to be watched. By everyone. It needs to be taught in schools as the supreme cautionary example of just how corrupting lots and lots of money can be on people’s hearts and minds.
9 times the paths of glory lead but to the grave out of 10
"I thought that rescue money was supposed to be passed on to the common people, like us." – The Queen of Versailles