It wasn’t a good time to watch this film. A few financial issues had surfaced at home and so watching how a super-rich family in America spends millions – the wife admits doling out up to $1 million a year in clothes – was not cheery viewing.

However, things changed. The family’s fortunes dive and soon the family dream home is foreclosed and dad is holed up in a dark room, surrounded by piles of bills, muttering about lights being turned off to save money. A life most of us know too well becomes theirs too.

This award-winning doco – it won last year’s doco prize at the Brisbane International Film Festival among other garlands – follows the mega-wealthy Seigel family through something of a journey for our times. The patriarch, David, founder of the world’s biggest time share company, appears in the early sections, when the money is still flowing, as a smug, vapid, (Republican) Presidential king-maker. His wife Jacqui, looks all trophy bride with her solarium tones, pumped up boobs and pillowy face of the botox addict. The kids – I lost count how many – are nanny-cosseted and brattish.

Jacqui is in fact the eponymous star and as the money starts to disappear faster than the banking industry’s credibility as the 2008 financial crisis hits, she rises above the crisis. Kind of. Coming from a dirt poor background, she reverts to the Stand-by-your-Man credo of her clap-board culture and begins giving things away to a charity she sets up. Her spirit is touching, if a little cheesy, and it is credit to the director Lauren Greenfield that this character study allows for such contradiction and complexity.

David Seigel’s fortune was/is reliant on banking. To ease the selling of millions of time-share accounts, his business model was to take just a 10% deposit up front to seal the deal. The remaining 90%, which actually is the company’s cash-flow, is advanced by banks on future payment via various corporate paper programs. And like paper, it is no good at building a business on, especially at a time when punters are defaulting and banks are pulling in old loans and demurring on new ones.

As such, it is an iconic business, built on cheap money, slick sales and consumers with porous brains. It’s demise is the demise of a certain form of capitalism and the family’s slow decline into relative penury – they are still well clear of outright poverty – marks a paradigmatic shift in the culture of consumerism and modern economics. It’s like watching dinosaurs die.

The film engenders complex feelings in the viewer. There is the feeling I felt initially, a kind of grumpy envy. And there is a schadenfreude, a nasty delight in seeing the fall and fall of these over-rich parodies of contemporary Western society. But, there is an identification too. We can see our own attachment to material things, to image, to pretending we can beat nature. Whether it’s in the shape of a $100 million mansion – the Versailles of the title – or a pile of stuff we don’t use but feel we can’t get rid of, we all carry our own shit.

Title – The Queen of Versailles
Makers – Magnolia Pictures and Evergreen Pictures
How to catch it – DVD and on ABC 2 on June 9 as part of the Sunday Best season
Couch Time – 97 Mins.
High Point – Identifying with central characters
Low Point – Identifying with central characters
Extras – Yes (on the DVD version only, of course)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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