Documentaries like The Queen of Versailles should be made required viewing for every single contemporary American. That’s a bold statement, I guess, especially since I find it highly unlikely that the vast majority of contemporary Americans derive much pleasure from the documentary genre, but it’s in equal parts bold and sort of accusatory. I think we as a people should watch films like this because they are as entertaining as they are informative – and this film in particular deals with an issue that we are all dealing with in some way or another: the Recession.
The Queen of Versailles follows David and Jackie Siegel, owners of Westgate Resorts in a riches to rags kind of trajectory. It’s ironic that this film should be about this company, seeing as I myself stayed in the Westgate Resort in Gatlinburg a few years ago, and it was a lovely place. Furthermore, it’s fitting that over the course of my life I’ve had the opportunity to live in pretty close quarters with some pretty wealthy people. This meant that I didn’t ever find myself as shocked by this family as much as I did find myself startled at how similar their experiences were to some that I have myself witnessed. The moral of this documentary is tricky, since the director of the film (one Lauren Greenfield) glibly leaps from being extraordinarily judgmental of their subject matter to treating the family with a surprising degree of empathy. This is important, I think, because it’s so true.
It’s especially easy, given the current national climate, to point our fingers at the rich and slap the label on them as being the villain in our national play. I’m not going to say that extreme wealth/luxury doesn’t bother me. It bothers me enormously, in fact, perhaps in part because I have seen it up close and personal and have seen what it can do to family structure. What I would add to this notion, however, is that just because I may not agree with the values embodied by the super-rich like we see in this film that this does not rob them of all their humanity.
This film treats this subject brilliantly. Equally angering and saddening, we start out hating this overprivileged family and by the time the film ends we find ourselves aligning more and more with their plight. They are reduced and reduced until we are left with nothing but the people themselves, each of them forgivable and – yes, I’ll go ahead and say it – lovable. I was stunned at how well (and how quietly) this film revealed its main family as being not only human, but pleasantly human. They start out as easy to hate. And yet as they lose more and more of their material wealth, their humanity begins to seep out of them in spades. This, as we eventually see, has both positive and negative effects.
The two main subjects, David and Jackie, are perfect embodiments of what I mean by this. I found while watching that I intensely disliked each of them for wildly different reasons over the course of the film, but I also appreciated different qualities in each of them to an enormous degree. David’s an arrogant, angry, cold husband. He’s also incredibly perceptive, and delivers some of the films most momentous dialogue with heartbreaking wisdom. Jackie is an airhead, a ditz, the epitome of a trophy wife who infuriates us with her obliviousness. Yet as the film matures and David falls further and further into darkness, Jackie startles me with her unshakeable loyalty to her husband and her simple acts of kindness towards those who have less.
Orbiting these two main people is a memorable cast, ranging from Jackie’s seven children (and one troubled niece) to the immigrant nannies who warm our hearts with their gentle natures, to the middle class neighbors that comment on the family much the same way we probably would if we were in their shoes. Webbed around those orbiting people is a large array of animals, ranging from lizards and tigers to dogs and fish. I’ll go ahead and completely spoil the documentary for you and let you know that a lot of animals died in the making of this film. (You read that right.)
This is a documentary in the fashion that all documentaries should be made. It observes, but does not really judge. It simply describes through a watchful lens exactly what is before us. We are left to judge for ourselves the quality of those we are watching, the quality of ourselves, the quality of our nation and of the American Dream itself. We’re left to ask ourselves whether we would do any different if we were in their shoes. It’s a startling film on multiple levels – startling in its depiction of both the American Dream and that dream’s consequent ruin. This is perhaps the most complete portrayal of the American identity in the eyes of the international community I’ve ever seen on film. Overprivileged, arrogant, yet good natured, earnest, and as of late in deep, deep trouble.
In the end, see this movie. It’s more entertaining than a lot of action flicks out there. It’s relevant, funny, sad, true and real. It invites both compassion and Schadenfreude, it forces us to wonder who the villains are when it comes to this crisis and to question whether we ourselves have forgotten some level of our humanity when we blame the rich for a crisis which has struck them in ways we may not have ever imagined possible. No, you don’t see Jackie walking the streets for money or her children freezing on the streets. But you see a father estranged from his family, a marriage in duress, and people living in perpetual fear. These people are plagued by human problems, well portrayed by a searingly human film. And for that, I love them.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a documentary that needed to be made. Cathartic, empathetic, judgmental and important, The Queen of Versailles is worth a look. If I could mandate it, I would.
OVERALL SCORE: 9.4/10