Saturday, January 5, 2013

Netflix Streaming Review - The Queen of Versailles

Title - The Queen of Versailles

Genre - Documentary

Director - Lauren Greenfield

Cast - A super wealthy, then super not wealthy, family called the Siegels.  And some other folk.

IMDB Synopsis - "A documentary that follows a billionaire couple as they begin construction on a mansion inspired by Versailles. During the next two years, their empire, fueled by the real estate bubble and cheap money, falters due to the economic crisis."

Initial Thoughts

Oh the Siegels...  Where to begin with these people?  Well, let me try and put them into context.  Y'know how Florida is infamous for its white trash and the shenanigans they're constantly pulling?  Wait, you don't?  Alright, well pull up a chair here and let papa bear weave you a tale...

*leans back in leather reading chair, lights pipe, stares into the fireplace*

Okay, just kidding, I'm way too lazy to go over the insanity that is Florida.  Just read this website.  Seriously.  It's amazing.

But back to the Siegels.  Well, they're pretty much the same white trash you find in Florida (Orlando, specifically), just with way WAAAY more money.  Like, "let's build a F*UCKING $70 MILLION MANSION more money".  Stupid money.  I mean have you guys seen the 30/30 documentary "Broke"?  Well imagine that concept, except substitute all of the black athletes with a bloated, white real estate mogul, his ditzy trophy wife and all their little pets and children (honestly, sometimes I couldn't tell which from which).

And yet, with all that being said, I found it them strangely endearing.  Despite all the hubris, all the hypocrisy, all the comical naivete, this group of people really struck a chord with me.  Because, at the end of the day, after all the screaming on Fox News and MSNBC over who's to blame and this and that, this is what the Great Recession was and, sadly, still is.  The complete and utter perversion, and consequent demise, of the American Dream.

Now I have three distinct reasons why you should absolutely watch this documentary.

1.  Lauren Greenfield, the director, is equivalent to the perfect referee.

A referee should never be noticed during a game.  Like ever.  Because once he is, he becomes part of the game and ultimately part of the outcome.  And as such, whatever the outcome is, it will always feel somewhat corrupted because of the referee's influence (fair or not, accurate or not).  Documentarians are always in peril of stepping on the toes of their subjects, of ultimately making the documentary as much about the maker as it is about the makee (yes, I know makee is not a word).  Greenfield never does that.  She allows the subjects to breath and paint themselves as who they are.  Some clever camera work aside (see the final eight minutes when David and Jackie (husband and wife) are giving borderline soliloquies about how tough their lives have become, and Greenfield slowly zooms out while they are speaking to display the enormous amount of expensive gaudy crap they still own), it's the subjects that tell the story.  And that's the way it should be.

2.  The dead lizard scene

So after sh*t hits the fan for David's Westport Resort empire, the repercussions are quick and severe on Jackie's home life.  Seventy-five percent of the staff, primarily maids, are let go, leaving "only" four.  The result is a mansion that looks like a rental of the Jersey Shore crew (hooray for dated cultural references!)  Dog crap everywhere, rooms complete messes, dirty dishes strewn without regard... you went to college, you get the picture.  But at one point Jackie realizes their pet lizards haven't been fed in... well, let's just say awhile.  So she tracks down some turkey breast (the cornerstone of every lizard's diet, duh) and tries to get the scaly beasts to partake in supper. Alas, their too f*cking dead to do so.  Now how does the precious ten year old daughter react when she hears this?  Shrug.  Okay, well how about the fourteen year old son? "I didn't even know we had a lizard," he states with a casual indifference that only a white, floppy haired pre-teen can muster.

So... so.... so, wait, hold on, let me get this straight.  You hired... then fired... a large group of people... to take care of possessions... THAT YOU DIDN'T EVEN KNOW EXISTED!?!?!

Listen man, I'm all for conspicuous consumption and all (I mean just check out my liquor cab, bro) but Jesus Christ dude, like maybe, just maybe, take a step back and reevaluate whatever bizarro lifestyle you're living.  Because yeah, it's borderline offensive.

3.  It is the most personal time lapse view of one of the scariest and strangest economic times in American history.

What makes this documentary fascinating is that it began filming before the financial crisis hit, and what we get to see is a virtual real time glimpse of those who benefited most from the behavior that led to the mess, as well as those that lost the most.  Those two groups just happen to be the same exact people.

I started this review off by saying it was an illustration of the American Dream corrupted.  The American Dream, however you interpret it, is ultimately nothing more than a romanticized human construction beloved by those who have already "achieved" it or believe they will someday achieve it and scorned by those who struggle to grasp it (or worse, doubt its very existence).  At one point in the film we are introduced to Jackie's mother, an elderly grounded woman who, when asked about her daughter's newly founded wealth, pretty much just shrugs and says to the effect, "Hey, she wanted the American Dream.  Isn't that what everyone wants?  To have more than what they started with?"

It's a telling line in a very telling film.

In summary, see this movie.  You can read fifteen books by economists, ex-investment bankers and the like, and you will still not learn as much about the root cause of the Great Recession.


Final Grade - B+

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