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.
The scene is infuriating from the get-go. So who’s not paying federal income tax, an estimated total of 100 billion US dollars a year? ExxonMobil? Check. Bank of America? Check. Google? Apple? Fedex? The list runs deep. Yet lawmakers insist “we’re broke” and lay off teachers, police officers and firefighters in the name of balancing budgets. And there’s already colossal debt fueled by an insane war and government bailouts in the trillions. Huge multinationals receive subsidies and pull in record profits, but are paying little or no taxes. Experts, all engaging and never preachy, explain the ruse. What these corporations are doing is exploiting the existing tax code to move assets offshore to pocket their billions. The filmmakers utilize artful graphics that “follow-the-profits” from country to country, helping drive home the greedy machinations.
Americans, little by little, are waking up.Historically, we’re daughters and sons of the Revolution, after all, and taking a stand against tyranny is embedded in our DNA. Though the collective psyche has suffered a beat down, a belief in the democratic process persists. Enter US Uncut, a grassroots organization spearheaded by everyday Americans frustrated, and working their tails off and paying their fair share of taxes. Their request? That corporations pay their fair share too. They take to the streets, from small cities like Jackson, Mississippi, to urban centers like Chicago, Illinois, spreading the word. It’s interesting to see the evolution of US Uncut, one of the precursors to Occupy Wall Street, before there were any Occupy movements.
There’s super positive energy to We’re Not Broke. It springs from the “get off your butt and do something about it” – US Uncut activists. From the filmmakers: “When we first began filming interviews, I felt like I was making a film far detached from my daily life,” says co-director Victoria Bruce. “But as the experts began to unravel the mysteries of our national and global economy, I was finally able to link the economic ruin our country is facing to the corporate greed that’s been holding our government hostage for most of my lifetime.” You can feel the process of discovery unfolding in a “we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” kind of way.
The film digs to the core, peeling the rotten onion to the nucleus where money and politics mix. And “we the people” get screwed. What happened to “by the people, for the people,” a bedrock principal of our nation? I ask Bruce:
“The step-by-step clandestine corporate takeover of our government was accomplished because Americans were blindsided by the opportunity to get everything as cheaply as possible on borrowed money – without consequence. How did we let this happen? What I understand now is that having our collective head in the sand is not a way to have a successful democracy.”
Viewers I spoke to after watching We’re Not Broke got their wake up call. “There’s an intrinsic trust that something is way off in our country, that the details don’t even matter. Watching this film brings it to light. I’m blown away, extra alert, extra willing to participate.” That enthusiasm was also felt further off the screen, in the midst of Sundance in Park City where US Uncut activists joined Occupy protestors to demonstrate on Main Street.
The current maneuvering by politicians to lower corporate tax rates must seem like smoke and mirrors to anyone lucky enough to get the message of We’re Not Broke. What this forebodes for America is hard to tell. On one side there are folks who say the debt is so massive and power so concentrated in such few hands that we’ll never climb out of the mess. Then there are those who refuse to throw in the towel, even amidst aggressive police crackdowns at Occupy camps around the country. Will bread and circuses win out? Or will Americans continue to rise up and right the scales as our founding fathers required?
Let me end with a statement from Kira, one of the main characters in the film: “We as Americans have to decide whether or not we want to be a community, we want to be a strong unit or if we want to be every man for himself. And I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans need a community in order to survive.”