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Regime Change

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Queen of Versailles

Sometime in 2007, a documentary filmmaker named Lauren Greenfield insinuated herself into the lives of David and Jackie Siegel, a septuagenarian time-share tycoon and his middle-aged, much-augmented wife. At the time, the Siegels seemed like nouveau riche cartoon characters: the husband a glad-handing, lecherous empire-builder whose favorite charitable pursuit is reviving the fortunes of the Miss America pageant; his spouse a former model turned trophy wife turned mother of eight (because it’s easy to have kids, she tells the cameras, when the nannies raise them for you); their lifestyle a Vegas-and-Florida round of private jets, fluffy dogs, and outrageous shopping sprees.

When Greenfield began filming them, the Siegels were in the process of achieving the ultimate in meretricious grandeur, having laid the foundations and raised high the roof beams on a house that promised to be the largest in America. They had been inspired by a visit to Louis XIV’s Versailles, which so bedazzled the couple they resolved to recreate its grandeur in suburban Orlando, where their bedroom windows could open onto a view of the Disney World fireworks.

Their Versailles is half built when Greenfield’s documentary opens and still half built when it ends, because the economic crisis interposed itself and the Siegels’ time-share empire turned out to be dependent on the same easy money that had kept the rest of the real-estate bubble inflated. Like so many Sun Belt ventures, what had been the “Rolls-Royce of time-share companies,” selling working people on the chance to “vacation like a Rockefeller,” stopped delivering high returns when its clients stopped being able to make their monthly payments. And since Siegel, like many overconfident entrepreneurs, had never taken much money out of his business during the good times, he soon found himself in danger of losing almost everything — from his newly built Vegas tower to his family’s lifestyle to Versailles itself.

Amazingly, the Siegels let Greenfield keep on filming after their personal bubble started leaking air. She trails the real-estate mogul into his study, where he broods amid huge piles of documents, makes calls to potential investors, curses the banks circling his properties, and vows to make back everything he’s lost. She roves through his recession-ravaged business empire, visiting the overleveraged Vegas high-rise, the sales center that’s become a ghost town, and the cubicles where debt collectors cold-call delinquent time-share owners. And she follows Jackie and her children as they come to grips, not with poverty exactly, but with a marked downgrade in their charmed existence: They fly coach instead of by private jet, splurge at Walmart instead of on Rodeo Drive, and dismiss most of the retainers who manage their current sprawling home, which soon takes on a decaying, Grey Gardens feel — dead lizards in the kids’ aquarium, dog poop on the carpet, and fast-food boxes and unwashed dishes everywhere.

There’s an inevitable element of schadenfreude in Greenfield’s end-of-empire portrait, but The Queen of Versailles is much more than the kind of “watch the rich get theirs” film it could have been in more demagogic hands. (I can only imagine what Michael Moore would have done with the footage, especially given Siegel’s GOP ties: At one point, the time-share mogul boasts that he helped deliver Florida to George W. Bush in 2000, through means he refuses to identify.) The revolutionary resonances of its title notwithstanding, this isn’t a movie about how the rich stuck it to the rest of us. Rather, it’s a film that captures how completely Americans of every economic station were implicated in, and seduced by, the real-estate dreams of the mid-2000s.

So we don’t just watch the Siegels build and then potentially lose their overleveraged Versailles. We meet some of the people who bought shares in overleveraged hotel suites and mountain cabins, and the salesmen — including Siegel’s son from an earlier marriage — who sold them on a dream that they couldn’t quite afford. We visit Jackie’s childhood home in upstate New York, where her best friend from high school is also underwater on her mortgage. We discover that even the couple’s limo driver was caught up in the madness, buying and flipping Florida properties and then losing his own house when the economy tanked.

This top-to-bottom scope helps makeThe Queen of Versailles one of the best films to date about the Great Recession — up there with Up in the Air, Margin Call, and perhaps The Dark Knight Rises in the skill with which it illuminates our present pass. The key to the film, though, is Jackie, whose predictable stupidities (“Maybe they’ll have to go college,” she frets about her kids) coexist with an unexpected depth and a fascinating back story. She’s a former IBM programmer and beauty queen, an abused spouse in her first marriage turned lady of leisure in her second. She’s somehow at once spoiled and hardworking, naïve and savvy, greedy and innocent, out of touch and deeply decent. Forget Versailles, in other words, and think America: Jackie Siegel isn’t Marie Antoinette; she’s us.

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