[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
Already earning more comparisons to the “Real Housewives” franchise than any film in Sundance history, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “The Queen of Versailles” is a beguiling look at one spectacular sliver of the U.S. financial meltdown. The improbable focus is Jackie Siegel, a 43-year-old mother of eight, former Mrs. USA pageant queen and trophy wife of David Siegel—the owner of what he proudly declares the largest private timeshare company in the world.
Both Jackie and David—who are 35 years apart in age and don’t appear to have much in common—come from humble roots. They recall growing up in homes with just a single bathroom, which may be one reason why they started building a palatial estate modeled after the French castle Versailles in Orlando, Florida. The “house” would have 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a full-sized baseball field, two tennis courts, a spa, a bowling alley, even a theatrical stage for their kids to perform plays. It would be the largest home in America. At least that was the plan.
Fate, and the financial crisis, intervened. David’s booming timeshare business came crashing down to Earth. The unfinished Versailles went on the market for $75 million and was eventually foreclosed. As David himself says on camera, the Siegels found themselves living a “riches to rags” story.
Although the family fully cooperated with Greenfield during two years of filming, it appears that at least David Siegel isn’t so happy now that it’s coming to light. Although he hasn’t seen the finished product, he filed a defamation lawsuit in Florida court against Greenfield, executive producer Frank Evers and the Sundance Institute, objecting to—among other things—the Sundance Festival guide describing the film as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags story.” (His contention is that it harms his image as a businessman. But as the film makes clear: he took his hits, but his family isn’t in danger of living on the streets.)
While neither Jackie nor David is presented in an entirely flattering light, the surprising thing about this warts-and-all portrait is the amount of empathy it’s able to provoke for its shamelessly wealthy and undeniably self-absorbed subjects. (Even after David gleefully takes credit for helping win George W. Bush the Presidency, and noting “It may not necessarily have been legal.”) Greenfield refuses to take a black-and-white, rich vs. poor schadenfreude approach. Instead she uncovers a virtually endless array of fascinating details that help turn the film into a deeply personal study of unique circumstances.
The more we learn about Jackie and David’s backgrounds, the more we understand them. And Greenfield makes time for particularly rich detours into the lives of the Siegels’ Filipino immigrant nanny (one of—at one point—19 domestic workers in their home), their personal limo driver who relays his own story of economic strife, and one of David’s fortysomething sons from his first marriage who has a strictly “employee/employer” relationship with his dad.
“The Queen of Versailles” also functions as a metaphor—or cautionary tale—for conspicuous consumption on any financial level. What ultimately grounds the Siegels’ high-flying American Dream is an inability to live within their (ridiculously excessive) means. As one of their eight children wisely observes about the lifestyles of the filthy rich: “It’s like you don’t have to worry about money. But you do.”
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “Hello I Must Be Going”: Ten years after making his directorial debut at Sundance with the Philip Seymour Hoffman drama “Love Liza,” actor and director Todd Louiso (maybe still best known as the manny from “Jerry Maguire”) returns with the study of a thirtysomething divorcee (Melanie Lynskey) stuck in a rut. She’s unemployed, living with her parents (Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein) and completely unmotivated to do…anything. Until she falls into an entirely unexpected sexual fling with the 19-year-old son (charismatic Christopher Abbott) of one of her father’s business acquaintances.
The film is a chance for Lynskey to prove she’s more than just the reliable scene-stealer from “The Informant!,” “Up in the Air” and “Two and a Half Men.” It’s her most significant starring role since her debut—Peter Jackson’s sublime 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures”—and, like the movie, she’s enjoyable to watch without ever rising above the lightweight intentions of feel-good heart-on-its-sleeve dramedy. It’s hard to be negative about a film that’s so positive, and if “Hello” ultimately isn’t a very significant film, it’s certainly preferable to a bad one.
- “Wish You Were Here”: A tedious infidelity drama from Australia that tries to conceal how dull its characters and their problems are with a drawn out, lackluster missing person mystery. Performances from the cast led by Joel Edgerton (“Warrior,” “Animal Kingdom”) are largely unexceptional.
- “The Ambassador”: Danish director Mads Brügger caused a minor sensation at Sundance two years ago with the inside-North-Korea documentary “The Red Chapel,” which was barely noticed upon theatrical release. Now Brügger applies his prankish sensibility to a manufactured account of corrupt diplomats abusing titles and power to gain access to blood diamonds in the Central African Republic. How closely the movie resembles how these things really go down is left entirely up to the audience to determine, but Brügger’s domineering and self-absorbed presence as our guide to the illicit underworld doesn’t help in the credibility department. Considerably less compelling than “Chapel,” it likely faces even bleaker commercial prospects.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries