Friday, July 27, 2012

"The Queen of Versailles": The rich don't always get richer; hucksterism can break down

There is a moment late in the documentary “The Queen of Versailles”, where former billionaire David Siegel, 74, sits in a cluttered room in his mansion (it almost looks like a hoarding site) and works desperately to save his “world’s largest time-sharing company” (Westlake) and gripes about the meal that his articulate wife, Jackie (44) has made for him. He asks something like, do you know what it would be like to do without electricity? 

That struck me as an odd question for a “rich old ruler” to pose.  I doubt he has any clue as to what EMP really means, but it could be a global equalizer.

The name of the film (directed by Lauren Greenfield) refers, of course, to Jackie, and the film is in some sense her biography (not his).  Raised in upstate New York, she had been trained as an IBM engineer, but left to model, and had survive one bad marriage before meeting David.

Then, living on an island near Orlando, David decides that isn’t good enough, and decides to buy a $100 million virtual replica of the Versailles Palace, complete with extras like a baseball field (like John Grisham, maybe – the Devil Rays are the nearest MLB team). He says he will do it “because I can”.  Hence the rest of the movie title.  As the film opens, he also takes credit for throwing Florida to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, and throws hints of illegality.

The film provides a cogent description of how the time-share real estate business works.  The heart of Siege’s business seems to have been his Westlake hotel and casino in Las Vegas.  I did not visit this during my recent visit to Las Vegas, and the movie’s end credits tell us it has finally been foreclosed and no longer has Westlake’s name. 

But the training sessions for sales employees are telling. They remind me of the phrase “Always Be Closing” in the 2002 film “100 Mile Rule”.  Salesmen get prospects hooked on the condo time shares on the first visit – on the theory that if you use it every year, it is cheaper than a hotel. 

Then, the 2008 financial crisis hits, with all its derivatives and credit default swaps falling like a house of cards (or a house built on sand).  David fights the banks to keep his casino-condo, but the couple can no longer afford Versailles, and it sits and rots unfinished on the market.  The kids (she has seven of them, and enjoys having babies, she says – and her husband still doesn’t need Viagra) might need student loans and real careers. 

The film won Best Director at Sundance.  The official site (Magnolia Pictures) link is here

Washington ABC station WJLA movie critic Arch Campbell noted that the director started working with the couple before the crash, intending to make a documentary just about the home, not knowing that it would turn into a story about economic downturn and rebirth.

I wondered what Jackie's world means for our moral debate on "marriage".  Sure, there was complementarity, and a great deal of benefit. 
I saw it before a modest Friday night crowd at the Shirlington in Arlington, early show. The audience chuckled a lot at the rich people eating caviar in new poverty.

Maybe Michael Moore would like this film. Or maybe Tom Shadyac of “I am” (review here March 27, 2011) would say, David and Jackie have a lot more than they “need”.  

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