This week, I finally watched to the end last year’s popular documentary The Queen of Versailles, which had been sitting on my to-watch shelf for far too long. While I had initially been drawn to it by its fun, snappy trailer, the impression it left also removed any sense of urgency in watching it: I assumed it would be a fast-paced freak show done in a mode similar to MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, simultaneously satirizing and glorifying the most outrageous excesses of the filthy rich. Productions such as this tend to foster the kind of structural disavowal that typifies capitalist ideology: mocking the excesses of the extremely wealthy while taking a superior attitude that makes the spectator a non-complicit voyeur of their actions. Such productions celebrate and even mythologize capitalism by allowing the viewer to imagine that he/she would never stoop to such ridiculous behavior if endowed with equal riches.
But my viewing experience of The Queen of Versailles turned out very differently. What initially seemed like a freak show about skeezy “time-share tycoon” David Siegel and his abundantly procreative trophy wife Jackie slowly but surely transforms itself into a systematic dissection of what Marx famously described as the internal contradictions of capital accumulation. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield started filming the Siegels before the subprime mortgage crisis struck, drawn to the couple by their ridiculously oversized project of constructing a replica of the Versailles palace as their prospective family home in Florida. The economic bubble bursting in 2008 obviously stopped this development in its tracks, flinging the Siegels into the unpleasant reality of debt-financed virtual wealth, and providing Greenfield with a dramatically productive come-uppance for these decadent twits.
Thankfully, the film goes far beyond this obvious route. Portraying both Siegels in a manner as non-judgmental as their frankly nauseating lifestyle allows, the film develops into a portrait of two rather ordinary people struggling to grasp the enormity of how all of this has happened to them, along with a total inability to adjust their daily routines. Living a lifestyle in which too much is never enough, Greenfield shows Jackie compulsively, even helplessly acquiring more and more commodities, both before and after the crisis, while David learns that nobody, and least of all his high-profile “friends” in politics and high finance (neoliberal icons George W. Bush and Donald Trump are mentioned), is about to assist him in any way now that his line of credit has suddenly dried up.
Asked to look back on his career towards the end of the film, Siegel regretfully notes that he would have liked to do things differently: “to just have fifteen resorts, not 28.” But of course, this is exactly one of Marx’s fundamental contradictions of capital accumulation: as David Harvey tirelessly reminds us, capital cannot abide limits, always finding a way to break or circumvent them. Neoliberal capitalism being what it is, there would have been no other path for Siegel but to do exactly what he did, which is to keep investing and keep accumulating more and more capital, until reaching the point where (in this case) the entire system once more went into crisis. (He admits as much shortly thereafter, when he modestly indicates that he now only desires “that yacht, that house, and that private jet.”)
And while this reversal of fortune takes place, we are continuously confronted with the many other perverse and obscene facets of neoliberalism and its neoconservative values: former model Jackie is fully aware of her status as fetishized sex object, continuously displaying the multiple ways in which she has disfigured her body while parading around in the most embarrassingly revealing outfits imaginable. The eight children in their family are the victims of a form of neglect that would be even more stunning if we failed to consider the completely predictable effects of reification and commodity fetishism on the family, while the way Siegel speaks of his wife (“It’s basically like having another child…”) speaks volumes on the rampant misogyny and perversely sexualized infantilization of women in capitalist society.
In one other unexpectedly poignant moment, Siegel’s seemingly gung-ho oldest son (from a previous marriage), who is also one of his business managers, candidly reveals that he and his father are actually “not close,” and that their relationship is entirely a business arrangement. This scene and many others like it show these people for what they are: not as the outlandish exceptions to the rule who take advantage of an otherwise fair and balanced system. But instead, as folks who are in large part the victim of circumstance, who have swallowed wholesale the norms and values of a form of capitalism so deeply mythologized in our culture that they are dumbfounded to find themselves where they end up. In other words: the “king and queen of Versailles” aren’t actually the villains of the piece, but in many ways its tragic victims.