Arts Review

The Lure of Versailles

The 47 percent. The 99 percent. The 1 percent. These phrases were heard everywhere in the months leading up to the election, and the emotions they raised might well have led to Mitt Romney’s ultimate defeat. Yes, there is classism in America (to use an ugly but useful neologism), and yes, our great experiment in democracy has produced a highly stratified society in which income inequality, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, “is more severe in the U.S. than it is in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. We’re on a par with some of the world’s most troubled countries, and not far from the perpetual conflict zones of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.”

It’s safe to say that we Americans have always had confused ideas about money (and it’s a widely recognized fact that money is never just about money). Our economic philosophy is derived—or rather cherry-picked—from a variety of frequently conflicting authorities, ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Jesus Christ, from John Calvin to the now wildly influential Ayn Rand. Darwin’s theory of evolution might be excoriated by our religious right, but its application to human relations and competition, “social Darwinism,” has become an important component of the capitalist ethos. Most Americans, it has been found, believe Jesus to have said “God helps those who help themselves,” though the author of this aphorism was in fact Benjamin Franklin. What Jesus did say was that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God—but this is conveniently forgotten in this Bible-reading nation. We are a country whose unofficial anthem is “Simple Gifts”—it’s played so often at official events that its strains now produce instant nausea—but who really believes its lyrics? One of the scarier cultural moments of the last thirty years was the fetishization of Gordon Gekko, the nominal bad guy in the great 1987 film Wall Street. In a recent interview, Michael Douglas, who so memorably portrayed Gekko, complained about this weird reaction to the movie: “If I get one more drunken guy from the Street going, ‘Hey man! Greed is good! You’re the man! You’re why I got into this business!’ and I’m going, ‘Hey, I’m the villain.’”

Wall Street was an allegory for American greed and overreach, Reagan-era style. A more contemporary allegory is The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that premiered at the Sundance festival in 2012 and astounded that jaded, spoiled Hollywood crowd with revelations of excess even they could not have imagined. What is the American Dream? Is it Willy Loman’s modest ambition of employment and self-respect? Is it the white house with the picket fence and the two-car garage? Is it the Manhattan penthouse and private jet, à la Gordon Gekko? Beyond that, what could one possibly wish for?

Plenty, it seems. The queen of the movie’s title is Jackie Siegel, third wife of David Siegel, CEO of Westgate Resorts, a gigantic Orlando-based time-share mogul. Having heard that the Siegels were in the process of building the largest private home in America—they had been inspired by a visit to Versailles—filmmaker Lauren Greenfield in 2007 approached the good-natured, guileless Jackie about making a film on the Siegels and their grandiose project. “I had long been interested,” Greenfield has said, “in this connection between the American dream and home ownership and the way that the home had become this expression of self and identity and success.” Jackie Siegel was enthusiastic about the proposed film, for who after all could be anything but bowled over by the glamorous Siegels and their fairy-tale life? Soon she had taken Greenfield into her inner circle, inviting her to parties, family fun, intimate dinners. With stunning naiveté she seems to have had no thought that Greenfield’s copious footage might be turned against her. Vulgar? It’s not just that she didn’t see herself as vulgar; it’s as if she had never heard of the concept of vulgarity.

Yet she embodies it. Forty-three years old at the time of the filming, some three decades younger than her husband, Jackie Siegel is the classic aging trophy wife. Tall, blonde, and statuesque, this former model and beauty queen is most noticeable for her truly monumental breasts, surgically enhanced, which she emphasizes with skintight blouses and artistic décolletage. Rather than giving in to the ravages of time by modifying her style, she fights them every inch of the way, donning ever-shorter hot pants and undergoing painful dermabrasion and Botox treatments, to which the camera is made privy. Her voluptuous body after all is what snagged her billionaire hubby; and though he pretends to joke about it, he makes it pretty clear that he’ll look for younger flesh if she starts to shrivel. He prides himself on his virility, even at seventy-four. “He doesn’t need Viagra,” Jackie laughs. “But at least there is that option.”

Opening shots show Jackie awkwardly seated on her husband’s lap, adjusting her cleavage as the two pose for a photographic portrait on a gold Louis XIV chair. The camera pans the wall, dwelling lovingly on the kitsch art with which the Siegels have already memorialized themselves. A painting of David as a gladiator. One of Jackie, with two of the couple’s eight children, as a Roman empress. David in Napoleonic ermine. We are not in the Versailles-house, which will be 90,000 square feet; that is under construction. Instead we’re in the modest $7 million, 26,000-square-foot place in the gated community of SeaGateIsland (Florida) that the Siegels are making do with until the dream house gets built. Only fifteen bathrooms here. Says Jackie, “We’re bursting out at the seams.”

The dream house will be in a different stratosphere. David designed it on the back of an envelope. The palace of Versailles was one inspiration, but the real model was the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. Its top three floors, with their crude postmodern take on seventeenth-century French architecture, provide the mansion’s “look.” There will be a health spa; a skating rink; a bowling alley (naturally); a sushi bar; a stadium tennis court (and a regular one too); thirty bathrooms; ten kitchens; a “grand ballroom” with room for an orchestra; a big window for watching the fireworks at nearby Disney World. The whole thing will be filled with Louis XIV antiques that are ready and waiting in a nearby warehouse.

In the meantime, life goes on, not too shabbily, at Sea Gate Island. A team of Filipino nannies wrangles the kids. Jackie goes shopping, to the tune of one million dollars a year at her peak. “I think purses are a good investment,” she comments. “You can always resell them on eBay.” The foodie revolution has definitely not caught on in the Siegel family: oceans of junk food, McDonald’s and KFC by choice, are consumed in the glittering kitchens. A herd of yappy little white dogs bustles about underfoot, crapping on the white carpets. A dead one, Chanel, is stuffed and displayed in a case. So is another, one that had been crushed beneath a car. (Muffled shrieks from the audience both times I saw the film.)

Vulgar? David Siegel doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and isn’t interested in learning it. “What I have today is what I worked hard for,” he says, and Jackie echoes the sentiment: “My husband deserves it,” she says, for his “lifetime achievement.” It’s an Horatio Alger sense of virtue rewarded. This is part of David’s moral perspective on the world, one that is prevalent in modern capitalist dogma. As a former CFO of Westgate has said, “David embodies everything right and wrong about greed and capitalism.” What’s good for business is good for America. “I personally got George W. elected,” Siegel boasts to the filmmaker. How? Something to do with the Florida ballot? He’d rather not say: “It may not necessarily have been legal.”

Siegel built his business to extraordinary success by targeting the lower-end time-share buyer, families with an income of $40,000 to $50,000. Recipients of subprime mortgages, in other words. The business has depended on cheap credit, and when the crash comes in 2008, it is hit heavy. Greenfield obviously had not predicted such a turn; her film suddenly takes a new direction and becomes a much more dramatic and morally nuanced story as the once-mighty Siegels are for the first time given limits. The banks aren’t lending. Westgate has to lay off 7,000 employees. David Siegel’s personal liquidity is drastically reduced. He sells his planes, his resort, his dude ranch. The Siegels’ personal staff goes from nineteen to three: a housekeeper and two nannies who now work around the clock. The kids are enrolled in public school. Jackie is distressed that their financial future is no longer assured: “They might have to go to college now!” David, more realistic, worries that they might not be able to do so.

David blames the banks: the lenders, he says, are no better than drug pushers. “They got us hooked on cheap money and then withdrew it.” And now the bankers are after the dream house, which is still only half built. They want the Siegels to “unload it” for under $15 million, a bargain basement price.

Greenfield makes effective sport of the Siegels’ efforts to cut corners: we are invited to laugh at their first experience of commercial air travel (one of the children wants to know who all these people are on their plane) and with car rentals, as a Hertz employee reacts, open-mouthed, when Jackie asks him who her driver will be. Jackie makes pathetic efforts to cook family meals, while the bear-like David broods in his den, shuffling papers in an attempt to conjure up the $400 million he needs to bring Westgate out of the hole. Jackie says to Greenfield, “the stress has actually made us closer, stronger.” But when Greenfield asks David whether he gets strength from his marriage, he answers, “No. Not really. It’s kind of like having another child.” Throughout the chaos, the filmmaker creates a subtle pathos by juxtaposing the Siegels’ money troubles with the far more serious straits of people who are close to them: the kind nanny who hasn’t seen her own children, far away in the Philippines, for years, and who is happy to inhabit the Siegel childrens’ playhouse; the equally gentle chauffeur, a former real estate dealer whose net worth went from $3.5 million to zero in a previous crash and who uncomplainingly makes the best of his new life.

Greenfield has called her film “an allegory about the overreaching of America,” and had the end of the action been the end of the Siegels’ story that might have been an apt description. But since the cameras stopped rolling, David Siegel has made an unexpected comeback. He is still at the helm of Westgate, now a leaner and meaner company half the size it used to be. It no longer awards a mortgage to any Tom, Dick or Harry who has a yen for a condo time-share but gives actual consideration to how reliable the borrower is likely to be. And against all the rules of dramatic structure, the conventional doling out of rewards to the virtuous and come-uppances to the proud, David and Jackie Siegel are still in possession of the Versailles house, that great emblem of hubris; and they have not given up on the idea of moving into it one day—even though by then several of the children will be in college. This, perhaps, is the real moral: not necessarily that naked capitalism is the answer (tell that to the many Westgate employees who lost their jobs!), but that the most ruthless capitalist is only too likely to prove unsinkable.

Turning to the real Queen of Versailles, Marie Antoinette—one of the principal characters in the new French film Farewell, My Queen, from the director Benoît Jacquot, based on a 2002 novel by Chantal Thomas—one can only observe that she was rather less sympathetic than the trusting Jackie Siegel. Marie Antoinette was a foolish and feckless woman whose shenanigans harmed her husband’s reputation and made his position even more untenable than it already was; it is hard to understand why she has so fascinated posterity. French royalists romanticized her during and after the Revolution and presented an image, for those who have cared to believe it, of a martyred beauty. For others, beginning with the political enemies who demonized her throughout the 1780s, she has served as a symbol of greed, heartlessness, and vanity.

Jacquot and screenwriter Gilles Taurand would seem to fall into the latter category, though their portrayal of the frivolous queen is not without a certain sympathy; the casting of the exquisitely lovely Diane Kruger in the role adds a luster that the real Marie Antoinette, to judge from portraits, did not possess. But Jacquot is renowned as a director obsessed with female pulchritude, and Kruger’s co-stars, Virginie Ledoyen as the queen’s confidante Gabrielle de Polignac and Léa Seydoux in the leading role of the queen’s reader Sidonie Laborde, are every bit as stunning as she is.

The film begins the morning of July 14, 1789 and goes on for three days. The storm gathers, as the saying goes; the fall of the Bastille may not have liberated many prisoners (there were only seven inmates at the time), but the tremendous significance of the event is not lost on the watchful aristocrats who throng the palace’s hallways. Nerves fray; this degenerate group of people, as useless a crowd of parasites as have ever existed, knows their time is up.

Perhaps never in history has there been a culture as weird as the one that Louis XIV established at Versailles in the seventeenth century and that his great-great-great grandson, Louis XVI, was still presiding over at the time of the Revolution. It had been the Sun King’s objective to emasculate the aristocracy by keeping them away from Paris, away from their estates, and harmlessly occupied at Versailles under his eye. The system worked for a time but it was unsustainable, to put it mildly, and the awkward, diffident Louis XVI—movingly portrayed here by Xavier Beauvois—was totally unsuited to the high ceremony and malicious artifice of the court. “I’ve always considered power a curse that one inherits unwillingly,” he tells his wife. “A curse disguised in an ermine mantle.”

Filmed almost entirely in the palace and its grounds, Farewell, My Queen is visually ravishing, thanks to set designer Katia Wyszkop and costume designers Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux. It’s by no means the conventional costume drama: there is much beauty, yes, but none where, in real life, none would exist, and the actresses’ faces are free of make-up. Versailles was famous for its ordure and grime as well as for its matchless architecture and furniture—the great diaries of the duc de Saint-Simon have left an indelible picture—and the creators of this film have furnished it accordingly. The contrast between Sidonie’s absolutely bare room (for even though she is the queen’s personal reader, she is still a servant) and the queen’s, which resembles a decorative interior by Watteau or Fragonard, is absolute.

A document from the revolutionaries is soon circulating among the terrified courtiers: it is a list of 286 heads that must be cut off before reform can take place. Marie Antoinette’s tops the list, and she and the king now understand that they must flee. Their first plan is to go to Metz. The queen fussing about with her belongings and deciding what she can and cannot take with her is oddly reminiscent of Jackie Siegel “cutting corners” and planning to sell her purses on eBay. “We’ll need teapots, coffeepots, chocolate pots . . . ,” she murmurs, as she removes her jewels from their settings for easier transport. She is too distraught at having to part with her beloved duchesse de Polignac, here (unhistorically) depicted as her lesbian lover, to consider the darker possibilities the future holds. Indeed, she cannot even conceive of them: a daughter of the empress of Austria, married to the French dauphin at the age of fourteen, she has never experienced anything but utter subservience and has never done anything at all for herself. As the sensible Madame de la Tour du Pin observes, “The queen never opened a door in her life.”

The lesbian plot, the luscious women, the voyeuristic backstage view: it’s all fun, but the real interest here, as with The Queen of Versailles, is the film’s depiction of a decadent and outrageously self-referential society. This is less true, I think, of a third recent movie about the very rich, Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage. Jarecki, who has written the screenplay as well as directed, seems to have been uncertain about whether he wanted to drive home a moral point, in the manner of Oliver Stone with Wall Street, or simply come up with a financial thriller; as a result the movie falls a little short on both counts, though it’s both watchable and intelligent.

Is greed good? Oliver Stone said no, but as we’ve seen with the Gordon Gekko wannabes that so irritate Michael Douglas, the message came out strangely mixed. This is also the case with Arbitrage, as the very casting of Richard Gere in the role of hedge-fund mogul Robert Miller would indicate. Gere is simply too attractive; he could play a villain if the role were overtly villainous, but Miller is more nuanced than that. His principal passion is money, but he has other passions as well, some of them very worthy ones. Still beautiful in his sixties, Gere commands not only admiration but a sympathy that is misplaced in this film.

Like Jacquot, Jarecki (aided by production designer Beth Mickle and costume designer Joseph Aulisi) gets the look of his world exactly right. It’s all elegant and luxurious without being glitzy: leave glitz for peasants like David and Jackie Siegel. The Millers do know the meaning of vulgarity. Like David Siegel, Robert Miller comes from modest beginnings, but unlike him, he has mastered couth on his way up. Every tone in the Millers’ Manhattan townhouse is mellow and warm; no doubt Ellen Miller (Susan Sarandon) has employed a color consultant like the famous Donald Kaufman. The art, too, is carefully considered: the Minimalist Brice Marden is a special favorite. Even the private jet is flawlessly tasteful. And the Miller progeny blends nicely with the interiors: there’s the handsome son who’ll never really cut it in the business and has been given a job in which he can’t do too much harm, and then there is the blonde, brilliant daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), Robert’s darling, heir apparent, and CFO.

Mysteriously, Robert wants to sell the company; when Brooke asks him why, he claims he wants to spend more time with his family, outside of the office. She is flummoxed by this: “I’m just trying to imagine what we would do.” As always when some megalomaniac quits his job to “spend more time with his family,” we know something is afoot; in fact Robert has been illicitly shifting funds around and is about to get caught unless he can succeed in selling the firm, immediately, to a high roller named Mayfield, played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. (How come no one has ever thought of putting Carter in a movie before? The role of fatcat banker suits him to a T.) While Mayfield stalls, Robert’s life starts to fall apart. He inadvertently causes the death of his lover, a young gallery owner (Laetitia Casta); trying to keep his involvement in this accident a secret, he comes under the scrutiny of a nosy detective (a role unforgivably hammed up by Tim Roth); he embroils a young protégé (Nate Parker) in the mess. In the meantime, both Brooke and Ellen have found out about Robert’s crimes and misdemeanors.

We get wrapped up in Robert’s troubles, but why should we care what happens to him? He’s not an evil man, but he is certainly one for whom money trumps everything, and his wife, daughter, and unfortunate protégé all deserve more of our sympathy than he does. Yet on some level we find ourselves rooting for him, perhaps only because the film is constructed so that we see things from his point of view, and because after watching him for thirty-five years, we are disposed to like Richard Gere and root for him.

Why the perennial appeal of watching films—and reality shows—about the grossly rich? There is surely some schadenfreude involved: it’s fun to see fortune’s favorites suffering, and then when they fall, they fall so very much farther than the rest of us, thus accentuating the drama. If there’s one thing new media, with its ability to take us into others’ private lives in unprecedented ways, has taught us, it is that Fitzgerald was wrong: the rich are not different from you and me. Not at all.