The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about a wealthy couple's intent to build the largest dwelling under one roof in the United States. The house - named Versailles - is being built in a suburb of Orlando on a lake where a number of other luxurious homes have been built. At the beginning of the movie, in 2008, the economy is humming along, and so is Jackie and David Siegal's business, Westgate resorts, a business that involves selling timeshares to people. Money is readily available, and their clientele, who appear to be lower middle class folks, are given a hard sell after a free meal - David affectionately refers to them as moochers - and they use credit to buy a week or two a year to vacation at one of the Westgate resorts - the crown jewel of which is in Las Vegas. Rather than staying in a cramped hotel room on the strip, a family of four can have a suite that allows for separate bedrooms, dining area, and a place to prepare food. David says that we all want to live like we are rich, and he allows people to do that for two weeks out of the year.
In the beginning of the film, David and Jackie live like they are rich all the time because they are very wealthy. He is a self made billionaire. Jackie is his third wife, David is Jackie's second husband. They met when they were both recently divorced and Jackie was Mrs. Florida. David was smitten by her, and Jackie enjoyed his adoration. Thirty years older than she, and buried in his work, he seems initially simply benignly disinterested in his six children and the extra kid, a niece, who is part of the family. Jackie said that she only intended to have two children, but that was before she knew about live-in Nannies who would provide care for children. Once she discovered this, there was no end to the number of children she could have. And with a staff of eighteen at the house, there is also no end to the amount of stuff they can buy, pets they can have, and the number of parties they can throw, without really being on top of much of anything. The stuff has piled up all over the place, so they need a bigger place. The dogs, which get stuffed when they die, aren't housebroken - the staff cleans up after them. And David is mildly surprised when all fifty of the Miss America candidates (one of the charities he supports) show up at his house, when last year only 35 of them did - he just thought his staircase, where they are always photographed, had gotten smaller.
The Siegel's have hired the father of one their kid's little league teammates to be their chauffeur. Some of the other little league parents are intimidated by their money and power - David comments that his contributions may have made George W. Bush president so he notes with just a hint of concern that the Iraq war may be in part his responsibility before moving on to other topics - but the chauffeur is really attached to them and happy to take them in the stretch limo to McDonald's to pick up chicken McNuggets when they get a hankering for a snack.
All of this conspicuous consumption is a bit off-putting - slightly sickening even - but it becomes more problematic when the wheels fall off the economy. The family fortune is suddenly in peril as the time share owners start to default on their loans. They fly a commercial flight for the first time and one of the children asks what all the other people are doing on their plane. Jackie rents a car from Hertz, and is surprised when it doesn't come with a driver. This is mildly amusing. But it becomes more disturbing when the children's pets start dying because their staff is not there to care for them - and some of the kids don't even know that particular pets existed. Most disturbing to me is a conversation about education. As their fortunes decline, Jackie bemoans the fact that the kids may have to earn a living and therefore will have to go to college, a fate that she thought they could be spared by virtue of their fortune.
The robber barons of the 19th century lived opulent life styles. But the Vanderbilt's built a University, one that became one of our truly fine institutions. It was built in Tennessee as part of reconstruction - it was money that came from the north and money that supported not just physical reconstruction, but moral and intellectual reconstruction. They also built a number of large homes, including the Biltmore - a home that features a world class library. Thomas Jefferson, a wealthy man of the previous century, almost bankrupted himself buying books, a habit he had trouble breaking. The point is not even that earlier generations were intellectuals or had intellectual pursuits, though they did and I obviously value that. The deeper concern is that this family is less interested in how they can put their tremendous resources to work to make the world a better place, that is, how they can utilize themselves - they are more interested in what can be done for them - how much they can be coddled - as if being cared for - as if being passive recipients of good stuff - were the road to happiness.
Warren Buffet, a wealthy man from our era who appears to have different values, asserts that, "I want to leave my children enough money that they feel they can do anything, and not so much money that they will do nothing." David and Jackie, or perhaps more accurately, Jackie, seem to worship the idea of doing nothing - they see it as a goal state that they can offer their children. David's older son, from his first marriage, works for David. They have a business relationship, but not a personal one. David is driven by work and wants to accomplish things, but as the economy dives, his inner rage becomes more and more apparent. He is resentful that the easy money that has built his empire is being taken away from him, and he pouts and threatens to destroy the whole thing to get back at his creditors. In the aftermath of the movie, he sues his son for giving the film crew access to the business after the economy has gone south.
The most disturbing part of the movie, then, is not what it has to say about a particular family, but what it has to say about us as a society. As we have become bloated by our wealth, by our easy access to money, a class of Americans has emerged who have made money (and there are many of us who have not) that has allowed us to accumulate stuff, stuff that we may well be addicted to. One of the kids in the movie comments after a particularly stuff laden Christmas (the stuff is purchased at Wal-Mart - it is after the downturn), that the stuff just creates a hole - a desire for more stuff. It doesn't really satisfy the desire that it is intended to address. And yet, we continue to pursue it. We believe that happiness will come as the result of being cared for, not caring. We believe that more stuff will make us happy. One psychoanalytic perspective on this is that it is a regressive experience. And David calls Jackie another one of his children, not a true partner or companion. And yet he has chosen her and groomed her dependence. He does not give her information that would allow her to be a partner. Instead he, too, is in a regressed state - king of all he surveys - the kid who does well and is cared for in return - he is the king of the castle - the infante terrible cared for by the queen who is really just a baby herself.
So, what about Versailles? What about the house? 90,000 square feet that will contain a banquet kitchen and 10 additional satellite kitchens. A floor plan built around a central ballroom - someday it will look like a sumptuous hotel and will host the kind of events that would be at a hotel - with swimming pools and spas and all the comforts of luxury. Well, the construction on the house grinds to a halt as the economy does. The Siegal's put it up for sale in its half constructed state only because the creditors insist that they do. It is, frankly, ugly. It looms, waiting for a marble coat and for an interior that will, you just know, look tacky as only the opulent wealth of a Vegas casino can look tacky - but in its current state it looks decayed - without ever having been complete. The pool, just a big cement space, is filled with rainwater. It looms as large and empty as the stomaches of the children on Christmas morning after they have opened the umpteenth game intended to amuse - with parents who don't know how to play them. The house comes to symbolize the unrealized dreams that mindless consumption affords.
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