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Sociology and the “Queen of Versailles”

I am a bit of a documentary film fan. It’s a recent development so don’t ask me my feelings on “Paris is Burning” or “Tongues United”. I tend to start at “Hoop Dreams” and “Roger & Me” and work my way forward.

It took 45 seconds of the “Queen of Versailles” trailer for me to anticipate the film. When finally released at my favorite Atlanta theater, my inner sociologist and tiara aficionado was not at all disappointed. I’ll save you my fetishizing over the many sparkly crowns in the film and offer, instead, a brief sociological primer of the film. I offer it primarily because my google-fu failed to turn up such a primer as I was attempting to convince my sociology tweeps why the film is a great contribution to a range of sociology courses. Since I’d come and it had not yet been built, I thought it might mean that it is my job to lay the slab.

First, a quick synopsis:

Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield offers this documentary profile of nouveau-riche time-share entrepreneurs David and Jackie Siegel, who witness the sudden collapse of their lifelong dream when construction on their opulent, 90,000-square-foot Versailles-inspired manor is suddenly halted after the economy collapses. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi

Now, some daydreaming about how I would use this film:

Stratification and Capitalism: There’s no way around it: the Siegel’s, particularly David, are quintessential American capitalists. David isn’t just an entrepreneur: he’s a seller of the low-class American dream. And he’s proud of it. There is a 20 minute spiel from David and his son, who also works in the business, about how their time-share process works. There they are in a sales meeting telling agents that selling a time share is a life-saving venture. See, poor working people need an escape. They even throw in a statistic about how many marriages cite stress from being overworked as a reason for divorce. And children of divorce are unhappy. Families spend less time together leading to bitter adults, crime, and wayward children. The answer, David and his son Richard, is to sell these people a luxurious, relaxing time share vacation. Oddly, they never mention that the high cost of the time share is in keeping with the number one reason families cite for divorcing: money woes. But that’s neither here nor there. They’ve tapped into the Kardashianization of U.S. culture: people don’t want to ball like a rock star — that’s too much work and it requires talent and practice. No, people want to ball like a reality TV star: no work, no talent, no ability required. The Siegels can make you feel important and rich for one week a year on the Las Vegas strip. It’s the low rent American Dream. And it’s for sale.

To help sell that dream the agents make a big show of showing off pictures of the celebrities who have time shares in the building. However, it is hard to imagine that Shaquille O’Neal will be hanging out pool side with the family of 6 from Tucson in their Wal Mart mix-and-match tankinis.

There’s a special hat-tip to my own research area. Later in the film, after the big crash has jeopardized David’s fortunes (with his help, btw; what idiot buys the house cash, takes out all the equity and puts 100% back into a company with that kind of business plan??!) he muses on what might happen to his children. There is no cash, no liquidity, he says. He’s put it all in business (euphemism alert!). They might, he says, actually have to go to college now. It’s a brilliant 30 second summation of status competition and education in the U.S. As so many of us fight for greater access to quality education for more people, the Siegel’s of the world are intuitively aware that college is not really necessary for success. Family wealth is what is ultimately necessary for his kind of success. But, in lieu of that, the kids can settle for an education although David looks doubtful about it being a legitimate consolation prize.

Gender: Oh, the story of women in this movie. I could wax poetic about it for days. There’s Jackie who was aspirational and smart enough to get a job as an engineer at IBM back when there was still such a thing as secretarial pools. It’s easy to think she took the low road out of her working class, small town life when she traded her education for a pair of breast implants and a crown. But I couldn’t help but think as she tells the story of a co-worker who wrote a computer program that would count down to his retirement to the second that she made a rational economic exchange given the options socially constructed for her. She was white, thin, young, pleasantly attractive enough and smart enough to realize that those features (with, of course, new boobs) had a higher social value than being one of few women in the management training program at IBM.

David jokes relentlessly about waiting for Jackie to turn 40 so that he can trade her in for two 20 year olds. But the joke has bite. When the Siegels host all 51 contestants from the Miss American pageant in their home David appears to be shopping for the girl who has made the same calculation that Jackie made 20 years earlier. And Jackie knows it. So we see her wheeled into a cosmetic surgeon’s office for some procedure that involves lasers and light and lots of redness afterwards (I was culturally lost here; my people don’t do this stuff so I’m not sure what she had done exactly and it’s never explicitly stated).

Jackie is mostly a sympathetic character. But then we see her not just as an appendage to David or a tiny dog toting rich woman caricature, but we get to see Jackie as an employer and suddenly you want to punch her in her newly reddened face. We learn that the nanny, Virginia, cares for the kids five children although she has not seen her own son in over 20 years. We watch her fight for a place of her own amid kids who treat her as a benevolent adult playmate who just happens to also sustain them by cooking, cleaning, and wiping the dog shit from their shoes. She finally gets permission to move into the children’s outdoor playhouse: itself a child’s take on the parents’ Versailles-sized visions. The children grew tired of it but Virginia treats it like a haven. It’s quiet and clean and her own space in a house large enough to have afforded her an entire wing. Even there, though, she finds herself often waking up with one of the children who has climbed into bed with her during the night. There is no rest for Virginia.

At some point Jackie speaks of motherhood as a great experience. She just loves babies, she says. Children and people, however, seem to be less to her liking. And it is inconvenient how babies insist upon becoming such things. That’s what nannies are for. She would never have had so many children, she says, had she known that one day she’d have to lay them off and, presumably, care for them herself.

Marriage and Family: An odd turn is taken part way through the film with David’s son, Richard, talks about his estrangement from his father. Even though Richard is the heir apparent at the time-share company and works with David every day we learn that the is the son from a first, forgotten wife. The trends of remarriage and step-parents are played out in Richard’s story. David and Richard’s mother didn’t just divorce but, as it often happens, David also divorced his first set of children. David’s next wife wanted her own kids and promptly put Richard out on the one occasion when his father extended to him an invitation to live with him. We gather that Richard’s siblings don’t forgive so easily but Richard appears to have decided hat the adult trade-off — a high-powered job where he’s the boss’s son — is worth forgetting the past.

As for David and Jackie, David is clear about his reasons for marrying her. She was beautiful. And it is a deal Jackie seems OK with… until fortunes change for David’s company. As David struggles with his identity and hubris during the recession’s attack on his livelihood, we get a sense that Jackie wants to be more of a companion to the increasingly angry and bitter David. But, as David makes clear in response to a question from the filmmaker about the nature of their marriage, he was not in the market for a companion. He draws no strength from his marriage, he says. And we get the feeling that it is his loss. Jackie’s no wizard but neither, as she says at the film’s closing, is she a stupid person. And we remember that this is a woman who had the gumption to put herself through college, to enter a male-dominated field, and to walk away from it in search of the more she thought she deserved, to leave an abuse first marriage and win at the game of Capitalism: The U.S. Edition. She is more than pretty. But, I doubt she’ll ever be more than that to David.

Social Psychology: There are so many great moments in the film of inner lives on display. There’s David refusing to take a financial deal that could save his company because his name is on the building. To lose the building is to lose and he won’t deal. There’s the son admitting that he sold himself to his father for a price he was willing to take in lieu of recognition or a real familial relationship. There’s the wonderful adopted daughter of Jackie’s who is fresh from poverty and is simultaneously seduced and disgusted by her siblings’ wealth and entitlement. Take your pick here.

There are the dominant themes, of course, of the financial crisis and the hubris of wealthy traders. When David blames the government for getting him “hooked” on cheap money and then taking it away, you want to make your own welfare queen ad featuring his smug face and play it in Ohio 18 hours a day the week before the presidential election. But the best moments of that story, to me, are the physical decline of the once bustling sales floor of the time share call center. You see it at the start of the film full of people making many bad choices, writing checks for a dream they cannot afford and a dream that may not have even been their own before the sales agent told them it would save their lives. But, still, the people are there — trying for something better, animated, and engaged if more than a little bamboozled. Over the course of the film the money dries up, the doors to the sales center are closed, workers are fired, computers sit untouched, papers strewn about as they were left on someone’s last day at work. And the film then cuts to David, playing chicken with bankers he once loved and now despises, and you realize that what is for him a game of ego is for someone else a lost job, a lost home, and lost time. And of all the sympathetic characters in the film you feel the most sympathy for this country.

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One comment on “Sociology and the “Queen of Versailles”

  1. Pingback: Gerry Canavan

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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