As a beacon of what’s current, it makes sense the 2012 Sundance Film Festival featured a slate of documentaries addressing the deepening socio-economic crisis in America. Home foreclosures, rising unemployment, struggles for a decent wage and access to health care, the list goes on as politicians jockey for power, bailing out Big Banks while slashing benefits to average citizens. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the trouble started (though there are culprits) or know what the end game will be. Will the United States get their proverbial shit together or is the upheaval in Greece and Spain due back to our shores? Will the Occupy Movement manage to make a difference or will too many Americans continue to live with their heads in the sand? Here are two films that offer hope via the possibility of personal and political change.
Are the forces of greed too large to overcome? Shining a light on American excess is Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a portrait of the billionaire Siegel Family of Orlando, Florida – a town aptly located near Walt Disney World. David’s a 74-year-old real estate mogul. Jackie is his 43-year-old former beauty queen wife. When we meet the Siegels, their seven kids and melange of pets, they’re living the lavish life as they await the completion of their new residence, an upgrade from their current 26,000 square-foot house to a 90,000 square-foot mansion, the largest home in the United States, inspired by Versailles.
The Siegals represent the American Dream, with all its inherent virtues and flaws. There are glimmers of humble beginnings amidst the private jets, house staff, and outrageous lifestyle. Filmmaker Greenfield originally met Jackie when shooting stills for a photography project about “wealth, consumerism, and the international influence of the values of the American Dream.” Once she got to know Jackie (who steals the show with her candor and surprises with an engineering background), Greenfield says “it was clear that her story could only be told through film.” As it turns out, Greenfield was in the right place at the right time. It was 2008. Versailles was partially built – we’re taken on a tour of what will be a bowling alley here, a closet the size of a floor there; David’s timeshare business was hopping, sales teams revved up pitches to sell slices of paradise. Then the financial crisis hit. No one is spared, not even the Siegels, and the film takes a turn. Says Greenfield: “When life started to stray from all of our expectations, I was fortunate that Jackie and David had the courage to stay committed to the project and allow me to document their journey.”
So begins the downward spiral. The house staff dwindles, plates pile up, there’s a mess everywhere, even dog feces on the floor. David’s timeshare empire collapses, empty cubicles replace the din of phone sales in the days of easy money. No one is loaning money anymore, the ruse is up, yet David holds on to his dream of Versailles, resisting selling it for as long as possible. In a revealing scene, Jackie takes her family on a shopping spree for Christmas, even though the house is already packed with stuff and there’s no cash flow to pay the bills. Is the lure of materialism too strong?
The Siegel family is not your average American family suffering from the economic downturn. You might be tempted to call them out on their excessive lifestyle. But who’s to blame? Greenfield uses unlikely protagonists to expose a dysfunctional cycle in what she calls “a morality tale with lessons for us all.” The Queen of Versailles – though I’d like to see a little more show than tell – moves beyond judgment to hold a mirror up to our own culpability,beyond cheap home loans and the facade of the American Dream.
How did we get into this economic mess, anyway? Is there any way out? And what are you going to do about it? Filmmakers Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce offer their take in We’re Not Broke, a tour-de-force expose of corporate tax dodging. Well, not tax “dodging” technically – that’s illegal – let’s call it tax avoidance, sly ways American multinationals milk the system – legally – to the tune of over one trillion dollars to date.
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