Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Queen of Versailles" shows human side of the one percent

Maggie Kane

“I’m not a stupid person,” says Jackie Siegel, the so-called “Queen of Versailles,” at the end of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of the same name.

A former Miss America winner, Jackie married a wealthy man almost 30 years her senior. She has dyed blond hair and breasts that seem to increase in size as the film progresses. When the documentary starts, she and her husband are in the process of building the biggest house in America.

Jackie is easy to stereotype, but Greenfield makes sure to stay away from this trope: the shallow golddigger concerned with appearances and not much else.

When Greenfield started her documentary, it was about the couple and their house. Luckily for her, the financial crisis hit partway through and the story became much richer.

Suddenly Jackie struggles with letting most of the housekeeping staff go, pulling the children out of private school and doing her own cooking.

But while Greenfield shows Jackie in these seemingly ridiculous moments, she weaves them in perfectly with less expected information.

Jackie worries about construction halting on the 90,000 square-foot, Versailles-themed home of her dreams. She also lends $5,000 to a high school friend in an attempt to help save this woman’s home.

She struggles to keep her husband, David’s, attention as he falls deeper into an economic pit. He seems to be more interested in flirting with young women than talking to his wife. Jackie seems delusional about their relationship.

Then we learn that she divorced her first husband, who was abusive.

Greenfield achieves a difficult goal: she makes viewers feel empathy toward a one-percenter downscaling to wealth that still exceeds what most of us can comprehend.

She portrays Jackie as a human being instead of a wealthy caricature. Sometimes her focus on the human side of the story detracts from the overall narrative—it was hard to follow the ins and outs of how the family arrived at financial destruction.

But maybe that is an intentional choice. After all, Jackie doesn’t know either. She only learns that the unfinished dream house is in foreclosure after overhearing her husband mention it while doing an interview.

Jackie embodies excess and careless wealth. But when she admits, at the end, that she doesn’t know the details of what’s going on with the family finances, it’s hard not to pity her. Greenfield sees to it that Jackie is not the villain.

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