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The Perils of the 1%: From the Dark Knight to the Queen of Versailles

The Perils of the 1%: From the Dark Knight to the Queen of Versailles

In this week’s Docutopia column over at the SundanceNow website, I look at the strange confluence of similar themes existing in this week’s new releases, Lauren Greenfield’s indie documentary “The Queen of Versailles” and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” both of which offer accounts of how these dire times of financial insecurity and class conflict have put the rich and the powerful in a precarious state.

Here is an excerpt:

When we first meet 73-year-old David Siegel, the head of Westgate Resorts—the world’s biggest time-share company—and his perky 43-year-old blonde wife Jackie, they are on top of the world—sort of. Jackie’s trying to raise eight kids, clean up the “doggy caca” on the carpet, and deal with the stress of her family’s largest undertaking: the construction of the biggest domestic home in the world, a 90,000-square-foot palace they call “Versailles,” complete with wide, winding staircases, a bowling alley, video arcade and roller-skating rink. (It’s Wayne Manor—for real.) “That’s not my room, that’s my closet,” she says at one point.

The Siegels’ name for their property proves to be cruelly ironic. As a symbol of the corrupt 18th Century French monarchy, the palace at Versailles was one of the targets of the French Revolution. Three months after the storming of the Bastille, crowds besieged the property and forced the royal family out of their sheltered lives.

For the Siegels, revolution comes in the collapse of global financial markets. The real estate bubble bursts, time-share buyers retrench, and they must put their dream house on the market or watch it go into foreclosure—something that the headstrong David Siegel refuses to submit to. With over $50 million already invested into the building, the bank wants them to unload it for $15 million. As we watch them undergo their version of penny-pinching—reducing their maid staff, shopping at WalMart—the documentary becomes the dark flip side of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Jackie lives in quasi-denial—wearing fur coats while spouting off that she can’t afford a watch—while pere Siegel becomes more combative, depressed and withdrawn, a shell of his former arrogant septuagenarian self.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne and Gotham City’s peaceful established order is also suddenly uprooted when the terrorist villain Bane takes over the metropolis and mass anarchy ensues: prisoners are released into the streets and various members of the elite class are punished for their alleged crimes against the less fortunate. It’s a more vivid, visceral and violent depiction of the Wall Street collapse than what destabilizes the Siegels, but that’s Hollywood for you.

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