There have been overrated films (“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”), awful films (“One For The Money”), poorly-conceived films (“Salmon Fishing In The Yemen”) and disappointing films (“The Dark Knight Rises”) but the most rancid and utterly repulsive film I’ve seen thus far in 2012 is Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen Of Versailles”, a documentary that plays like a boring reality television program. (Note that each of these films has fairly long titles.) The film is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.
To be fair, it’s not Ms. Greenfield’s direction or staging that is the issue. The subject of her documentary however, is. Jackie Siegel is a former Hooters waitress and model who has beared seven children for her senior-citizen husband David, the crusty, wealthy owner of Westfield Records who invested millions in the country’s largest, most expensive single-family house modeled after Versailles, only for the global economic crisis and real-estate housing bubble to burst and render his investment meaningless.
In enormous debt, David struggles to hold on as inevitable foreclosure to the vacant gigantic property he owns is looming. The stress and strain of the consequences impact his large family. Jackie compounds this by going on humongous, sickening shopping sprees, the kind that would make the working class throw up on cue. The tension between family members shows in candid episodes but there’s nothing compelling about this awful predicament that hasn’t been captured in other, better documentaries.
If nothing else “The Queen Of Versailles” shows that the super rich are the same as everyone else in the world when financial misfortune strikes. (Really? You mean it took a documentary to reveal this to an unsuspecting public?) The Siegels are pretty much reduced to poverty, humbled by their trappings, sinking in financial quicksand. Before you can say, “let’s burn this money and make a fire,” all that the Siegels had saved up for a monsoon is practically a memory. The late Notorious B.I.G. once sang that with more money comes more problems, and Ms. Greenfield, an expert award-winning photographer, shows this well. The Siegels’ predicament is a sad one but it didn’t register with me one single iota.
Each passing minute that “The Queen Of Versailles” played on the big screen I cared less and less about the self-absorbed rich people that breathed and flickered in the darkness before me. I seethed quietly in utter contempt of the Siegels as I watched, gently shaking my head at the aloofness and vacuous decadence of Jackie, a reasonably smart and intelligent person who has faced hardships in her life including a fiercely abusive previous husband. Still very much a child, Jackie thinks she is funny and entertaining at Christmas parties, but there’s a lonely, falsely ingratiating way and self-centeredness about her that is nauseating.
Ms. Greenfield’s film didn’t get under my skin nearly as much as Jackie did. She infected the film rather than inspired it. Jackie didn’t make for an interesting subject at all. I couldn’t wait for “The Queen of Versailles” to end. It’s the only film of any kind this year that I have felt that way about — even films much worse than this one didn’t have me looking at my watch. I didn’t even stay to watch the end credits.
Filmed in 2010, the documentary captures Jackie, who in reality is a good soul who has paid her dues, in her early fifties. She has been extraordinarily helpful to friends in need. Yet that didn’t seem to matter to me. Instead of feeling sympathetic to Jackie and David I grew more dispassionate and disengaged. At least I mustered compassion and sensitivity toward the loyal housemaid and caretaker Virginia Nebab of the Philippines, who hasn’t seen her own family in several years. Ms. Nebab experiences both sides of the American Dream, and mostly wallows in its nightmare thanks to the shadows the financial crisis and Jackie’s unbridled excess casts over her. It is Ms. Nebab I felt most for. Well-paid and taken care of, she suddenly is stuck in America without a rudder. Her story is moving and frustrating.
Two-thirds of the way through Ms. Greenfield’s documentary I asked myself, “why am I watching the Siegels? What is it about them that is so unique or special? What is it about Jackie that is must-see TV or film material?” Had Jackie been without breast implants or wasn’t blonde or white or generally attractive would Magnolia Pictures — the distributor of fine films like this year’s “Take This Waltz” and “Compliance” (opening next month) — have even picked this film up for distribution? Would an American audience (read: a largely white audience) be remotely interested in seeing a black woman or Latina of similar (or dissimilar) means in a documentary on the exact same subject? Would much sympathy have been engendered in that particular woman’s plight or her family’s? The answers to those questions appear clear to me. What do you think?
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“The Queen Of Versailles” is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic elements and language. The film’s running time is one hour and 40 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s pingroof.com stories and film reviews, click here. He’s been a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and is a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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