"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river ran,
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
By Gary Thompson
Daily News Staff Writer
THANKS TO THE recent housing bubble, we have a glut of stately pleasure domes in this country. Perhaps not adjacent to a sunless sea, but certainly underwater.
Alas, we do not have a Coleridge to make poetic sense of the whole mad era. What we do have is the amazing documentary "Queen of Versailles," and if you had to pick one movie to place in a time capsule to explain our foolishness to future generations, this might be the one.
The Kubla Khan of the piece is real estate magnate David Siegel, a man who one day decided his 23,000-square-foot mansion was not big enough, and so commissioned something much larger (a pattern that appears to have been repeated with his wife's breasts).
And so, on a piece of land in Florida surrounded by pro golfers and NBA players, Siegel decreed that he would build a 90,000-square-foot residence, modeled after Versailles palace (a real estate broker pronounces it "Ver-Size"). It would be the single-largest residential structure in America, containing caverns measureless to man, and also a skating rink and a bowling alley.
What sort of people are the Siegels? You be the judge, but it is fair to say that they are not the sort of people who worry they might be tempting fate JUST A BIT by modeling their dream home after the residence of Marie Antoinette. (Siegel sits for interviews on a throne, beneath a picture of himself made to look like a king.)
Of course without this hubris, we do not have the movie. Siegel and wife Jackie believe that director Lauren Greenfield is documenting the construction of this gawdy monument to their wealth and … taste.
Then hits the real-estate collapse, and it hits Siegel particularly hard — he's built his empire selling time-shares, financed with subprime debt. His customers default, his cash flow evaporates. He's leveraged to the hilt, staking his personal wealth, his brand new Vegas hotel on the idea that the bubble would grow forever.
One thing we can say in the Siegels' favor is they do not turn away from the cameras when the crap hits the fan — he gives grim status updates as the house stands unfinished, banks threaten foreclosure, as his new hotel is imperiled, and as bosomy, botoxed Jackie is forced to shop at Wal-Mart.
Are they getting what they deserve? Probably, but the movie is more complex than that. There are improbably involving human stories here. Case in point: the missed connections between generations of Siegel men hinted at in the movie's biographical material — David's late father was a salesman who spent too much in Vegas, and the son has surely built the hotel as some kind of compensating monument to this legacy. Meanwhile, David withholds attention from his loyal son Richard, and the more Richard says he does not need his father's overt love and approval, the more you are certain that he does.
So "Versailles" does work on a human level. As for that time capsule, the movie invites the viewer to see the Siegels as a supersized version of a more typical American who borrowed too much and bought too much during the bubble.
That's fair, but if I were filling the time capsule I'd include the mortgage fraud "epidemic" identified by the FBI, the opaque CDOs that packaged these mortgages, the ratings agencies that mislabeled them, the doofus agencies that bought them, and the millions of homeowners who find themselves underwater through no fault of their own.
Oh, Ver-Size? It's on the market for $65 million. No takers.
Review | sss1/2
The Queen of Versailles
Documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield. Distributed by Magnolia.
Running time: 100 minutes.
Parent's Guide: PG
Playing at: Ritz Five