"Let me tell you about the very rich," goes the familiar passage from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. "They are different from you and me." But in the era of the 99 percent and Keeping Up With the Kar-dashians, "rich" doesn't signify what it once did. Could it be the wealthy are only different from the rest of us for exactly as long as their money holds up?
Filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield — whose work has long focused on American wealth and consumerism and its influence across the globe — happened across billionaire former beauty queen Jackie Siegel while shooting fashion designer Donatella Versace, from whom Siegel used to buy a lot of clothes. Siegel invited Greenfield to Florida to photograph herself and her husband, "time share king" David Siegel, at their starter-mansion home even as they built another structure in Orlando — the largest private house in the world, a 90,000-square-foot palace the Siegels call Versailles that was inspired by the royal residence outside of Paris. When she started shooting what is now a documentary called The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield had found a new way into her favorite subject matter in Jackie, an earthy and unpretentious woman who obviously came from humble beginnings. Then came the financial crisis of 2008.
Over the course of the film's first half-hour, before disaster strikes, it's easy to laugh at Jackie's cartoonish and surgically sculpted body or at David's unbridled ego, especially as he sits on one of his many thrones and explains how fortunate his family and his employees are to know him. When the Siegels' fantasy world starts collapsing under the same debt and foreclosure suffered by common folk with subprime mortgages, The Queen of Versailles gets interesting in unexpected ways. Greenfield shows great restraint in her handling of the Siegels' predicament and leaves enough room for our initial schadenfreude to morph into something resembling empathy. Greenfield couldn't have known where her film would wind up, but circumstances handed her a mirror to hold up to our culture, and it blurs the line between the rich and the rest of us.
The Queen of Versailles begins as a study in conspicuous consumption but evolves into a portrait of obstinacy and likely self-defeat. Siegel could make all his problems disappear by handing over his crown jewel — not Versailles, but a time-share resort in Las Vegas so gaudy and bright it actually disturbs neighbor Donald Trump — to the bankers who have rigged the game to steal it. But that kind of loss is not something a modern billionaire accepts. The film's most shocking moment comes when we realize Siegel has not put away one dime for himself or the eight children who currently live under his roof. Why should he? He sees no distinction between himself and his company, which allows him to justify his 24/7 all-work lifestyle. There's certainly nothing "different" about that. — KEN KORMAN