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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Queen of Versailles



U.W.: Lauren Greenfield, 2012

I. The Aristocrats

Of all the amusing, depressing and jaw-dropping things in The Queen of Versailles — Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about the construction and deconstruction of the largest one-family dwelling in the United States, a domicile modeled on both the French Palace of Versailles and the Las Vegas Paris Hotel and built by time-share resort hotel czar David Siegel — one of the things that bothered me most was the seeming fact that in this entire massive, outlandishly ornate yet fundamentally cheesy edifice, intended as a glorious Got-rocks celebration by Siegel and his family (including wife Jackie, seven children, one niece and 19 servants), I did not spot a single book. In this entire huge 80,000 square foot estate in the Orlando, Florida area — a replica of the actual Palace from which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were dragged, or escorted, to the guillotine, a home that boasted 10 bedrooms, 20 bathrooms, a baseball field, a movie theatre, a soccer court, a bowling alley, plus roaming space (if not an actual zoo ) for a lion and a tiger — I couldn’t spot books of any kind, other than the piled-up business volumes and records in Siegel’s increasingly desperate cul-de-sac of an office.

Then I realized my error. Since the second Palace of Versailles was still under construction during the shoot, the house interiors we were mostly seeing, the ones in which the Siegels actually lived, were part of their current digs, a smaller 26,000 square foot Orlando palace, whose more modest confines, though many times larger than any home any of us will ever have or be invited to or even probably glimpse from afar, may not have had space for anything so outmoded as literature and poetry and art and history and science –not even a few James Bond thrillers, or the latest ghost-written volume credited to some notable politician, celebrity or Fox News commentator.

A house without a library, or in this case, seemingly without a book, seems to me a desolate place. Of course there was that 2,000 (I believe) seat movie theatre. And I’m sure there was a home theatre and big screen TV somewhere and a DVD collection that probably included Star Wars and maybe The Godfather, or Avatar, or a collection of “Miss America” Pageants (Siegel is both a buff and a patron of the Miss America show) or something for the seven or eight kids — unless the lion roamed by one night and ate them. (The DVDs or the Blu-rays, not the kids.) I’m sure they had a DVD (or Blu-ray) room, and maybe a music room of some kind, but not a library — and, if they did, these fortunate (at least when we meet them) people seemed less interested in showing it off or bragging about it, than pointing out the bowling alley or the baseball field. And they seemed less likely to buy books for their home than they might, say, be likely to commission a complete replica of the guillotine. Or the Bastille. Which would be inappropriate anyway.

Who are David and Jackie Siegel and why were they building a house with 20 bathrooms modeled on The Palace of Versailles? And why did Lauren Greenfield (Thin) make a Sundance Festival award-winning documentary about them? Well, the Siegels are not at all unlikable people. David is a congenial, white-haired, energetic, very candid-seeming guy with a frequent smile who amassed a billion dollar fortune in an enterprise called Westgate Resorts by selling what are called time-shares — deluxe hotel rooms — to multiple owners. Westgate operated in many locations, including his brand new deluxe Las Vegas palace, the 52 story Westgate PH Towers — where they also probably don’t have a single book beyond the ones in the accountant‘s office, except of course for the Gideon Bibles I hope are in every suite, and from which I also hope no one has removed the passage about it being harder for camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

II. It’s Good To Be the Queen

Jackie Siegel is blonde and buxom and lively and very engaging: a self-professed middle class girl from what she considers humble circumstances, who got an engineering degree and started working for IBM, then quit to become a model and a Ms. Florida beauty contest winner. She had one bad marriage, until she hooked up with David (definitely a catch), conjoined their two broods of children (somewhat like “The Brady Bunch”) –and became the toast of Orlando. Proudly described as a trophy wife by her own children, Jackie, when we meet her, is a young-looking 40-year-old. (David jokes that he may be ready to trade her in for two 20-year-olds.) She likes to shop, and has big blonde hair and a pair of truly immense bosoms, breasts so huge (apparently, we surmise, due to technical augmentation) that if she were to doff one of her seemingly non-existent brassieres and paint two smiley faces on them, she could easily pass (for a moment or two) for a three-headed carnival lady.

She’s no monster though, and neither seemingly is David. I liked them bo1th. They’re friendly, welcoming, companionable, proud of their lifestyle, and proudest of all of the showcase Versailles Palace they were erecting amidst the splendors of Orlando, and which I was happy to see, even in its uncompleted state. Why and how was it begun and stopped? Well, David, not very wisely — but in a move that has conferred cinematic immortality on him and Jackie — granted permission to documentary director Greenfield to enter his smaller 26,000 square foot residence (and Versailles as well), and film him and Jackie and some of their servants (but not, strangely, very much on the kids), at occasional work and mostly play. The filming commenced in 2007, a year before the crash. Are you laughing?

The idea, I suppose, was to immortalize the Siegels in their hour of triumph: to show how two people from relatively humble origins could rise to the pinnacle of wealth and society, hobnob with George W. Bush and other great, or seemingly great, or great-give-me-a-break guys (and a few trophy wives) and end up with digs swankier than Marie Antoinette’s, but without any bothersome class warfare. Such a tale might be truly inspirational: entertaining of course, in a Great Gatsbyish sort of way, but also a heartfelt message from the one percent (or maybe the upper 1 %  of the 1 % ) addresssed to the 99 percent, a call-to-arms afirming that if only we will work hard and wait patiently, catching whatever trickles down to us from those tireless job creators and their courageous defenders in congress (or better yet, get a few bank loans like David and start your own business), we too can ultimately (maybe) have a bowling alley next to our 20 bathrooms, a baseball field with a lion roaming around, 19 servants picking up the lion poop (because the big cat isn‘t house-trained), a replica Palace of Versailles and a deluxe time-share hotel in Las Vegas, with lots of showgirls and maybe some Frankie and Dino impersonators in the lounges singing imitations of “High Hopes!” and “My Way” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” in the lounges.

Even better perhaps, we could go beyond David, and expand on his vision. We could build an adjoining Bastille just beyond a tennis court, stuff it with impoverished lefties paid to wear rags, wave staffs and pikes and holler “Give us bread!” “Vive la revolution!“ and “Power to the People!“ — and make sure that, every year on Bastille Day, the Bastille (or a replica of it) doesn’t fall, but stays erect outside lifelike replicas of coaches carrying happy aristocrats, and Paris streets full of skulking peasants and revolutionaries, complete with a guillotine that keeps jamming, a Marie Antoinette bakery dispensing free cakes, and a Dunk-Robespierre arcade game. And by God we’ll get that damned camel though the damned needle too, even if we have to feed his ass to the damned lion.

III. That’s Life

But life can take some funny curves, as Jackie’s physical trainer might confirm. Whatever the motives behind this film, the results are devastating. Shortly after Ms. Greenfield’s movie commenced filming, awful things started happening to the U.S. economy and citizenry, and not just to the poor whining 99% or 47% (who mostly can‘t afford to buy a congressman), but to some of the 1%, like David and Jackie, who are supposed to be well-protected, especially in a Republican administration. Bush hit a wall. The economy tanked. Derivatives and deregulation bred chaos. Major corporations, like G. M., Ford and Chrysler, threatened to collapse. The real estate boom shriveled. Jobs disappeared.

And, like a house of cards, the effects hit Westgate. Bank loans dried up, including the ones absolutely crucial to David’s payroll. Building stopped at Versailles. Even the PH Towers were threatened,teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Fifteen of the nineteen servants were downsized, with the others reduced to double duty, forlornly picking up lion poop from the carpets. Jackie, facing reality, had to tell her children that they might actually have to go to college and get jobs, and abandon any dreams of an honorable life as world travelers and political campaign contributors. David has a shrewd explanation: The bank got them addicted to easy credit, then pulled it away, cold turkey. Probably true — along as well with the Bush administration’s ineptitude and seven years of policies designed to deregulate or defang any financial controls, turn the economy into a kind of massive floating casino and maximize profits for the 1 % — with less and less, whatever the Gods of High Finance deemed fit, trickling down on the rest of us. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

So the movie swerves from its original intentions — probably an ironic look at what Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption and what Ray Charles called “Whoopie“ — to become instead an appalling chronicle of financial chaos and greed derailed and dreams deferred and cakes uneaten and guillotines rusting uselessly in the sun — of poor Jackie reduced to shopping at WalMart and charging down the aisles filling up a shopping cart with lots of stuff anyway. (But still no books, as I recall.) Another child like his others, David calls her sadly. But don’t we all try to preserve that big child inside us? Don’t we all want to fly, like Peter Pan? Or like the heads of Louis XVI and his cake-loving Marie? As for the rest, the 99 percent, let ‘em go to Costco.

IV. La Marsellaise

Perhaps I should have put a “spoiler alert” on all this, But what would I be spoiling? In a way, of course, Lauren Greenfield somewhat betrayed her subjects, though not maliciously. They trusted her to come into their house and film them intimately — God knows why — and apparently were amazed at what it all finally looked like. But however Greenfield got this footage, it’s priceless. The Siegels have become superstars of one percentism, and if they’re smart, they’ll capitalize on it, maybe start a reality show in the ruins of Versailles. Instead, David is suing for defamation — though oddly, what seems to bother him most is a press note that calls this movie a “riches to rags” story. (I agree: These are rags?) Obviously it’s more of a middle class to riches to silicone to foreclosure to poop to maybe refinancing story. Or a saga of boom and bust. Anyway, I‘m still not sure why David objects to the phrase “riches to rags,“ since he uses it himself in the movie. Liberally.

I also can’t quite fathom why he was so disturbed by any seeming aspersions cast on his financial ability (he was, after all, a genuine job-creator), instead of another shortcoming he confesses to, on camera, earlier in the film. Speaking to his interviewer (Greenfield, I guess), fully aware that he’s being filmed, David claims, boastfully but quietly, that he is the man “who got George Bush elected president.” Really? How? He’d rather not say, David replies teasingly. It might not necessarily have been legal.

The Bush presidency? Illegal? Of course, maybe it was a joke. (Like the Bush presidency.) But somehow, it doesn’t come across as comedy, or satire. Our pal David seems to be telling it like it is. Are you laughing?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon