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kenmorefield

The Queen of Versailles

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Well, there are nine spots left on my list of ten favorites for 2012. This documentary, which got bought by Magnolia out of Sundance, is jaw-droppingly awesome. It's so probing in so many ways. Really, really worth seeing if you get a chance.

Review blurb:

If The Queen of Versailles were merely a film about proud or foolish people getting their comeuppance, it might be pleasurable (to some) but it wouldn’t be great. And I would argue that it is great. Because, really, what it is about is something more universal. It is about living with the consequences of decisions made in the past. It is about how experience is, at times, a cruel and indifferent teacher. It makes all but the most blind or the most lucky more cognizant of the little lies we tell, the little rationalizations me make, the little compromises we hide, to convince ourselves that we are the people we want to be rather than the people that we are. One of the great spiritual dangers of money is that it allows us a great amount of freedom, and few of us, rich or poor, have developed the requisite maturity, intelligence, and self-discipline to exercise near absolute freedom without doing ourselves great harm

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Those of us at the Glen Workshop 2012 (Glen West) are in the excellent company of Pete Horner, the Emmy-nominated sound designer of Hemingway and Gellhorn and The Queen of Versailles. I've just re-posted my 2-part interview with Pete at Looking Closer. I was up late talking movies with Pete until midnight last night.

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I've posted my essayish review of this excellent film over at CaPC. It's a favorite of the year so far for me.

I largely concern myself with the sense in which the American Dream has become less about the possibility for upward mobility, and more about the possibility of looking/feeling as if you've achieved it for a time, and whether or not the ends which underlie our imprudent means constitute a life and purposes which are in the end inhabitable.

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Finishing this up this morning. Very good film. I haven't read Ken's or Nick's full reviews.

What are we to make of the central marriage? Late in the film, after the finances have fallen apart, we hear one of the daughters say she thinks her dad might have married her mom so he could have a "trophy wife." There are scenes of strain in the marriage, but these struck me as minor dust-ups related to the couple's unraveling money situation ("why'd you leave ALL the lights on?"). The filmmakers are suggesting that an older, rich man married a beauty queen for reasons other than love. They quote him expressing some regret about past decisions, but I think those decisions are left open to interpretation. I think that same daughter mentions that she never really spent a lot of time with her dad.

Yet the kids are surprisingly absent, or downplayed, through most of the movie. This bothers me the more I think about it. Seems like they used the one daughter (she's older, so that may explain the filmmakers' decision) to suggest things they couldn't show otherwise.

Maybe my concerns are ill founded. The movie has just ended; these are first thoughts. But what I'm getting at is that my view of the family patriarch is surprisingly (to me) not negative. I'm sure he was distant from his wife and kids to some extent as he ran his business, but I didn't detect any resentment about that from the parties involved until that interview with the one kid, relatively late in the film. Am I supposed to think the father is a monster? He does seem appropriately humbled by the financial crash. Beyond that, I'm not sure how to regard him. I felt like the filmmakers wanted to portray him as a villain to his family and employees, but I never got there.

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Am I supposed to think the father is a monster? He does seem appropriately humbled by the financial crash. Beyond that, I'm not sure how to regard him. I felt like the filmmakers wanted to portray him as a villain to his family and employees, but I never got there.

I just watched this a couple weeks ago and enjoyed it. I found the Dad to be an utterly self-absorbed and fairly despicable, old coot. The testimony of his son from his first marriage, midway through film, was particularly damning. Siegel lived in the lap of luxury while his ex-wife and their kids lived at near-poverty levels. That whole sequence was infuriating. It was clear to me throughout the film, the man is concerned only with his obsessive need to acquire more "stuff" and expand his visible empire. That and his statement at the beginning of the film about helping elect Bush (using possible illegal means), made we want to give him a good short, sharp shock.

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Am I supposed to think the father is a monster? He does seem appropriately humbled by the financial crash. Beyond that, I'm not sure how to regard him. I felt like the filmmakers wanted to portray him as a villain to his family and employees, but I never got there.

I just watched this a couple weeks ago and enjoyed it. I found the Dad to be an utterly self-absorbed and fairly despicable, old coot. The testimony of his son from his first marriage, midway through film, was particularly damning. Siegel lived in the lap of luxury while his ex-wife and their kids lived at near-poverty levels. That whole sequence was infuriating. It was clear to me throughout the film, the man is concerned only with his obsessive need to acquire more "stuff" and expand his visible empire. That and his statement at the beginning of the film about helping elect Bush (using possible illegal means), made we want to give him a good short, sharp shock.

Oh, right! I'd forgotten about the Bush stuff (although the guy DOES express some measure of regret because of the "Iraqi War"), and more important, the son's comments. Maybe I went to easy on the old fella.

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Nick Olson wrote:

: Now streaming on Netflix.

But only in the U.S., apparently.

One of these days, you're going to move to the US just for the streaming availability.

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When Pop Culture Happy Hour discussed this movie, they said it would have been the ultimate Christopher Guest movie if it wasn't real, which is an excellent appraisal. But since it is real, it's bewildering and kind of painful to watch. No one (except maybe Victoria, the oldest daughter) comes off as having a very strong connection to reality by the end.

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Add this to the short list of documentaries that astonishes again and again with real-world moments that you cannot believe happened in front of cameras. I kept flashing back to Steve James' film Stevie, and thinking, "How did the presence of a camera not prevent this moment, this behavior? How could anybody say _____ or do _____ knowing they were being filmed?"

I wish I'd seen this before I posted my list. I'm going back and adding it among my favorites.

Edited by Overstreet

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Add this to the short list of documentaries that astonishes again and again with real-world moments that you cannot believe happened in front of cameras. I kept flashing back to Steve James' film Stevie, and thinking, "How did the presence of a camera not prevent this moment, this behavior? How could anybody say _____ or do _____ knowing they were being filmed?"

I wish I'd seen this before I posted my list. I'm going back and adding it among my favorites.

Glad you enjoyed this one, Jeff. I think it's my favorite doc. of the year, though I have a few to see yet. Another favorite is THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, which I would highly recommend.

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Add this to the short list of documentaries that astonishes again and again with real-world moments that you cannot believe happened in front of cameras. I kept flashing back to Steve James' film Stevie, and thinking, "How did the presence of a camera not prevent this moment, this behavior? How could anybody say _____ or do _____ knowing they were being filmed?"

Huh.

Maybe you just helped me figure out my biggest problem with it.

I used to think my biggest problem with it is that it is a story about rich people who become a little less rich, and actually think that they're poor, when everything they touch (and I do mean everything) and everything they eat (and I do mean everything) and everything they drive (etc.) is far better than anything I get to touch, eat or drive, and yet I don't complain about being poor all that much. i used to think I couldn't stand the film because I couldn't stand the people. Poor little rich kids who don't know how well they still have it.

But now you've got me thinking. It's been over a month since I saw the film, but I honestly don't remember anything that great about what was captured in front of the cameras. The presence of the camera didn't prevent any moment, the same way it doesn't prevent any moment on hundreds of bad reality-TV shows on cable, shows which I do not watch and cannot even name (except for the one about people who try to out-do each other's tattooing habits and the one about families who try to get their kids off drugs), but I don't know of too many situations anymore where the camera stops anyone from being anything more than two times whatever they already are.

So -- two times say I. Makes anyone here twice as spoiled, twice as hard to watch.

The same feeling I get from any of those shows on cable.

Edited by Persona

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Add this to the short list of documentaries that astonishes again and again with real-world moments that you cannot believe happened in front of cameras. I kept flashing back to Steve James' film Stevie, and thinking, "How did the presence of a camera not prevent this moment, this behavior? How could anybody say _____ or do _____ knowing they were being filmed?"

I'm not sure that's the case. My feeling was that some things (e.g., the trip to WalMart) was pretty much done for the cameras. There was a lot I liked about the film, but I think that someone like Jackie (a former Mrs. America candidate) would always know where there was a camera and how to play to it.

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Add this to the short list of documentaries that astonishes again and again with real-world moments that you cannot believe happened in front of cameras. I kept flashing back to Steve James' film Stevie, and thinking, "How did the presence of a camera not prevent this moment, this behavior? How could anybody say _____ or do _____ knowing they were being filmed?"

Huh.

Maybe you just helped me figure out my biggest problem with it.

I used to think my biggest problem with it is that it is a story about rich people who become a little less rich, and actually think that they're poor, when everything they touch (and I do mean everything) and everything they eat (and I do mean everything) and everything they drive (etc.) is far better than anything I get to touch, eat or drive, and yet I don't complain about being poor all that much. i used to think I couldn't stand the film because I couldn't stand the people. Poor little rich kids who don't know how well they still have it.

But now you've got me thinking. It's been over a month since I saw the film, but I honestly don't remember anything that great about what was captured in front of the cameras. The presence of the camera didn't prevent any moment, the same way it doesn't prevent any moment on hundreds of bad reality-TV shows on cable, shows which I do not watch and cannot even name (except for the one about people who try to out-do each other's tattooing habits and the one about families who try to get their kids off drugs), but I don't know of too many situations anymore where the camera stops anyone from being anything more than two times whatever they already are.

So -- two times say I. Makes anyone here twice as spoiled, twice as hard to watch.

The same feeling I get from any of those shows on cable.

I'll repost what I wrote on Letterboxd this summer, which addresses the fact I had similar reactions to Persona:

Lauren Greenfield, USA, 8/10

Frankly thought this film unbearable for a while, so much did I hate the central couple, an aging time-share mogul and his fake-boob trophy wife #3, who has 7 children because "why not ... there's nannies." (I may be a reactionary Republican, but I was raised working-class and always lived on what I could earn.) But the film grew on me. It's more than either a gawk at the filthy rich getting their come-uppance, or a privileged "poor little rich girl" sob story. QUEEN is a broader-aimed portrait of American capitalist materialism. It's not, as Mike D'Angelo says, that the Siegels are everyone else written exaggeratedly large (though they are), it's that QUEEN quite specifically shows how they made their money; in ways that implicate everyone -- through the fantasies and greed of others lower on the economic ladder, working- and middle-class folk who want to vacation like the Rockefellers, to "feel rich," to be treated like a somebody, even if you're a nobody, as David Siegel says of his parents blowing everything in Las Vegas. When it cuts from David telling the film-makers "it's a riches-to-rags story" and then cuts to wife Jackie getting a Botox treatment -- it sounds like a cheaper shot than it is. Jackie really is (and that's the film's genius) trying to economize ... she just doesn't really know how. And that's what's funny and poignant about this ultimate #FirstWorldProblems movie. In one memorable scene, Jackie shops at Wal-Mart ... what a comedown ... but fills several shopping carts and an entire SUV with ... stuff. Further, everyone in the film -- the maids, the chauffeurs, the salesmen -- is somehow dependent on the Siegels and is pursuing some kind of material dream, reasonable or otherwise. The Filipina nanny is unforgettable; as is Jackie's high-school friend Tina, whom she tries to help out in a more-real emergency -- the biggest villains in the film turn out to be the (wisely offscreen) bankers who, unlike even the Siegels, are completely alienated from the production of goods and services. But QUEEN also is a reminder that money isn't everything, even when you have more than you can reasonably use or enjoy. (Despite my early parenthetical, I don't actually object to wealth or even luxury you actually can enjoy ... all men would prefer filet mignon to greens and organ meat.) But, while it never gets CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS-level ugly, the Siegels are a genuinely unhappy family, and the film's most memorable scenes are the ones that underline that -- an evening in which David is in a huff over an electricity bill; the way the kids care for their pets and react to the results; paired interviews where Jackie and David are asked whether they love each other (there's nothing worse in life than saying "no" to that question and no, that's not a "privileged" POV) and, in the film in a nutshell, there's David's birthday dinner. To riff off that VERSAILLES anecdote ... being able to afford a turkey ain't all that if you can't even enjoy it.

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I do appreciate that summary. My struggle with films that are well made and are in some way intended to repulse the viewer continues. (Many here will remember my reaction to The Searchers.) I guess I can see it in a different light in the way you have described it... And I will be reading more reviews to see if others are saying similar things.

But honestly, I wanted to slap everyone in the film, all the way through.

Pretty. Much. Everyone.

I think one of the daughters may have had one itty bitty moment where I didn't want to slap her.

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I'm rather sensitive to documentaries that are meant to "repulse the viewer" too. I can't stand Capturing the Friedmans. I felt that this film avoided any sense of sneering or condemnation, but that Greenfield was as compassionate in her approach as she could be (short of inserting herself into the action like Steve James), giving everyone a lot of room to tell their stories and express their own conflicts and doubts and struggles. Sure, there's a lot here that makes me shake my head in disbelief, but I felt like the film was about so much more than "Aren't these people unbelievable?" I felt it was about America, and that it was more inquisitive than agenda-driven. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but something in this film conveyed sadness about this family, sadness more than indignation.

Edited by Overstreet

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I'm rather sensitive to documentaries that are meant to "repulse the viewer" too. I can't stand Capturing the Friedmans. I felt that this film avoided any sense of sneering or condemnation, but that Greenfield was as compassionate in her approach as she could be (short of inserting herself into the action like Steve James), giving everyone a lot of room to tell their stories and express their own conflicts and doubts and struggles. Sure, there's a lot here that makes me shake my head in disbelief, but I felt like the film was about so much more than "Aren't these people unbelievable?" I felt it was about America, and that it was more inquisitive than agenda-driven. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but something in this film conveyed sadness about this family, sadness more than indignation.

Yes. This is the primary reason that I thought VERSAILLES one of the best docs. of the year (one of the best films period). Greenfield could've easily edited this into a work of merciless condemnation. Instead, she's willing to show us moments that humanize the family, while also shedding light on ways in which we're all (or, at least, many of us are) implicated. The very nature of how they built their business is selling people on living a lifestyle that they can't afford.

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I'm rather sensitive to documentaries that are meant to "repulse the viewer" too. I can't stand Capturing the Friedmans. I felt that this film avoided any sense of sneering or condemnation, but that Greenfield was as compassionate in her approach as she could be (short of inserting herself into the action like Steve James), giving everyone a lot of room to tell their stories and express their own conflicts and doubts and struggles. Sure, there's a lot here that makes me shake my head in disbelief, but I felt like the film was about so much more than "Aren't these people unbelievable?" I felt it was about America, and that it was more inquisitive than agenda-driven. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but something in this film conveyed sadness about this family, sadness more than indignation.

I more or less agree with the tone, though I'm a little hesitant to say "as compassionate as she could be." It did not express verbally certain ideas, but the film is edited (in my opinion) very carefully, and there are enough cuts to make me classify it as editorial. The one that jumps to my mind is early where she asks David what he loves about Jackie and he speaks at some length about how she is such a good mother who is devoted to her children and the very next shot is of the nanny giving the kids a bath. One or two of these is ironic or coincidental. Enough of them and you see intention.

Actually, though, that's one of the things I esteem greatly about the film. I think a lot of people feel that DIRECTING documentaries means more or less turning the camera on and that's it...that good/bad documentaries are more or less a function of the content and not how the artist shapes it. But if you compare this film to...say..MEA MAXIMA CULPA and think about how Alex Gibney might have shot Queen of Versailles (or Greenfield Mea Maxima) you begin to see artistic choices.

Having heard Greenfield do a 30 minute Q&A at Full Frame, I would be hesitant to characterize her as being overly sympathetic, but (and this is the most important to me) she was sympathetic enough. And (as I said in my review) where she was critical, she was keen enough to recognize that the Siegels aren't that much different from us in substance, only degree.

Edit: Regarding the "something" that conveys sadness, I would guess that it is their helplessness. That's a situation that is hard not to induce sympathy or empathy on some level. These are people, for all their money, who can't take care of themselves. (Re: the dog poop all over the floor, the dead pet, the amount of energy and degree of difficulty of cooking one meal., the shopping that is as much an addiction as a pleasure--reminds me of another editorial framing of the trip to Wal-Mart ending, if I recall with the shot of the garage full of bikes--David's inability [as much as unwillingness] to tell his wife or son he loves them or receive the same from them.)

Edited by kenmorefield

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Watched this last night and almost quit with an hour to go, wondering why it was recommended, and had to read a synopsis on how it finished to get myself to go on.  I had a similar reaction to the Maysles documentary Grey Gardens. That one popped into my head while watching The Queen of Versailles, both like watching a train wreck, uncomfortable but you can't help yourself.  With Grey Gardens the effect by the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis, is more in your face and the need for a decision to go on watching hit much earlier in the show.  The Siegels are less of a freak show, and sometimes it was only missing the British accent of a Robin Leach narration, so sometimes it required a divining rod to see past the surface. The documentarian took away something the cast either had little idea was going to be present or just didn't care if it was seen, I'm not sure which.

 

On 9/27/2013 at 6:12 PM, Tyler said:

The Siegels have resumed construction on Versailles.

 

On 6/8/2015 at 12:38 PM, Tyler said:

David and Jackie Siegel's daughter Victoria has died. She was 18 years old.

  • "Victoria Siegel autopsy report released: 18-year-old Queen of Versailles star died of methadone & sertraline toxicity. The funeral was at a Methodist Church....(she) long struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs that she initially began taking for a seizure condition." (people.com)

 

Edited by Mike_tn

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