Monday, 3 September 2012

Queens of Tampa

A brilliant and peculiar documentary now playing here in New York was the perfect way to digest Tampa although a cast-iron stomach is needed for both. The Queen of Versailles (photo: Matt Schonfeld/Magnolia Pictures) tells the story of David Segal and his beauty-queen wife Jackie, both of humble origins. At the beginning of the picture, they are in the process of building a $100 million palace in Orlando, set to be the largest single-family home in the country. Segal’s money comes from his Westgate Resorts, a time-share vacation empire built on a helium balloon of credit and working class marks easily persuaded to spend money they don’t (or soon won’t) have.

At the beginning of the story, all is well, credit is cheap and the Segals’ eight children roam about their vast starter castle attended by a bevy of Filipina maids and nannies (at least one of whom left her own children behind to spend her life cleaning up after Jackie’s). Halfway through, though, the financial panic hits, and Segal’s $600 million Vegas crown jewel teeters on the verge of foreclosure.

The metaphor for where we are at as a nation is all too obvious, and because the filmmakers don’t overdo the mockery of the family, we grasp their worldview without facile distancing. It’s not a pretty sight and says a lot about what we were subjected to last week.

While we can sniff at the Segals’ nouveau riche displays, we also see that their grandiose consumerism is congruent with our dominant beliefs, perhaps best summed up in one of David’s lines: if you can afford it, you should have it. What’s the point of earning a billion dollars, he might have added, if people can’t see it? Any concept of scale, appropriateness, one’s impact on others is not just missing—it would require a brain transplant. Segal embodies the Thatcherite dictum: ‘Society doesn’t exist’.

And yet Jackie is not a pharaoh; she does not consider lesser beings mere animate chunks of meat that exist for her pleasure. She is self-made, American-style; she remembers her own past as a waitress and a struggling high school girlfriend. While smiling for pictures with her husband and George W. Bush, Jackie can worry about David’s laid-off employees and shrug off the loss of most of her household help.

Filtered through the kitsch prism of the Segals’ lives, the Republican festival of self-indulgence becomes no less disturbing but, at least from the delegates’ viewpoint, oddly humanized—which is disturbing in a whole new way. The Segals don’t set out to cause harm; they merely cause it. They illustrate the sad truth that sins of omission are easier and thus more frequent than crimes.

However, there is one important exception, alluded to early in the film: Mr Segal’s role in pushing Florida into the Bush column in the contested 2000 election. It’s chilling to contemplate that 200 thousand Iraqis had to die because David and Jackie wanted a half-million-dollar stained glass picture window and a private jet.

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