Family Fortunes


On Film

One recent weekday afternoon, I left my apartment in Los Angeles, walked three blocks, and bought a movie ticket. I was at liberty to see a movie in the middle of the day because I had just left my job, having decided to spend some time not “working,” but writing—and I needed to see a movie because the writing was not working. There was no writer’s block, per se: words trickled out, they were just terrible in that first-draft-fiction way. Compounding this writerly self-doubt was the uncomfortable feeling that I’d invoked a huge privilege—namely, a class privilege (my household could get by for a time, our dogs’ pampered existence intact, without my salary)—to produce a Word document full of tired characters and clichés. Worse still was the suspicion that I was, myself, a tired character and a cliché: too neurotic and guilt stricken to enjoy this temporary luxury and try to do something good with it.

And so, off to the movies. I’d just read about the documentary The Queen of Versailles, said to be the “riches-to-rags” story of a billionaire time-share mogul and his wife forced to cease construction on their new ninety-thousand-square-foot home (the largest in America, once finished) when the economy collapsed. So I chose that one: it was well reviewed, prize winning, and very much of the broader world, a good counterweight to the swimmy interiority of novel drafting. I was also drawn to it because it sounded like the kind of movie I would see with my dad back when I lived in New York; he and I would meet up at the Film Forum after work, usually for some edifying progressive documentary—The Trials of Henry Kissinger or Bush Family Fortunes, say—the significance of which we would then gnaw on over pad Thai afterwards. I liked films like this, and talking to my dad about them, because they helped me make sense of the world, and because they drew clean, reassuring lines in my brain between justice and injustice. Which is to say, walking into The Queen of Versailles, I expected to see a movie about some greedy one-percenters getting their comeuppance and feel good about that.

In a sense, I did. David Siegel, the time-share king, made his billions by seducing people into buying time-shares they can’t afford, largely by convincing them that the purchase will help them feel less like a working stiff and more like a rich person. This isn’t an interpretation but a matter of record—we see his sales force in action, as director Lauren Greenfield captures them talking strategy, luring people to sign on the dotted line, and, later, trying to extract payments from distressed customers after the housing bubble bursts. At that point, when banks refuse to lend to David and he becomes a “victim” of the system from which he has profited so outrageously, we savor the irony all the more because, well, David is a schmuck. He brags to Greenfield about having helped deliver the 2000 election to George W. Bush through “extra-legal” means (the Siegels live in Florida), but won’t elaborate. He channels his philanthropic impulses toward beauty pageants (Jackie Siegel, his wife, is a former beauty queen); a big patron of the Miss America organization, Siegel exudes lecherous entitlement when chatting up the young contestants at a party at his and Jackie’s home. When the Siegels fall on what passes for hard times—droppings from their countless white fluffy dogs pile up around the house, their domestic staff having been reduced to one; Jackie starts shopping at Walmart; there is suddenly talk of an “electric bill”—David becomes irritable and withdrawn, generally making life miserable for Jackie and the couple’s eight children. Partly because we know that the Siegels will always land on padded feet—even if their absurd imitation-Versailles mansion does slip from their grasp, a question that remains unresolved by the end of the film—it’s easy to root against David.

Jackie is a more complicated case. For me, she unexpectedly elevated the emotional and intellectual experience of watching the film beyond schadenfreude, beyond rational critique of conspicuous consumption and scandalous wealth inequality, to something more complex. A product of working-class Binghamton, New York, with the accent to prove it, Jackie is not only a former Mrs. Florida but, in her more distant past, a former engineer, who pursued science because she didn’t like the idea of being a secretary, the only other option seemingly available to her in the IBM company town in which she lived. Make no mistake: she is not admirable. Greenfield offers glimpses of her behaving as contemptibly toward the less fortunate as the original lady of Versailles, she of “let them eat cake” fame. “Just think of the bright side,” Jackie jokes to one of her domestic workers when the credit freeze imperils the Siegels’ monstrous new residence, “you might not have to clean this house.”

But damn it if Jackie isn’t, somehow, endearing and recognizable. She is warm and bubbly, has raised surprisingly thoughtful and unassuming children, maintains an easy rapport with old friends in upstate New York, and is far too vulgar, in her tastes and bawdy demeanor, to project any real elitism—at least, not to those of us lucky enough to be outside of her employ. (In an otherwise laudatory review in The New Yorker, Richard Brody notes that the film misses an opportunity to more closely examine the “paradox of wealth without refinement.”) I am definitely not apologizing for Jackie, her perverse values, or the complete lack of irony with which she pronounces the banks “vultures”—come the revolution, I hope the Florida Versailles is the first property expropriated—but watching her, I saw nothing so much as a person born outside of the manor who has become spellbound by wealth, a condition many of us, I would guess, have experienced.

At least, I have. My first exposure to serious wealth came when I was seventeen and arrived at the elite New England liberal arts college my dad had recommended because he’d gone to a neighboring elite New England liberal arts school. He had been a full-scholarship kid, born to poor parents, whereas I was a doctor’s daughter raised in comfort and total financial security. Nonetheless, my most salient memory from those first few months at school is of being hyperaware of all of the money around me—and of this really messing with my head. (What was I reacting to, exactly? Hard be precise; it was a blur of Choate-lacrosse-Greenwich-underground fraternities-sailing-Nantucket-tuition-family surnames on campus buildings-Short Hills Mall-Goldman Sachs-squash.) I was disoriented by it all, but felt something more aspirational, too: even as I dove into student activism, fulfilling the promise of my red-diaper babyhood by campaigning against sweatshops and protesting outside of the School of the Americas and arranging a summer internship on a union-organizing drive, I worried that my family’s house wasn’t nice enough for my college friends to visit.

Indeed, I developed a sort of house dysmorphia, perhaps not so different in kind from Jackie Siegel’s: my nice suburban New Jersey home, which had seemed enormous when we first moved there from the Bronx apartment of my childhood, now appeared small and shabby. “We don’t even have a guestroom!” I lamented to myself, mortified by the idea that my guests would have to sleep on the couch, or in my bed while I slept in the couch (never mind that, up to this point, I’d been completely untroubled by this setup, including during all of those overnight visits that my grandmother spent on our couch). When I returned home from college for the first time, I drove around my neighborhood after Thanksgiving Day, eyeing the compact blocks, the intimate arrangement of houses that had been so conducive to creating bike posses and playing spontaneous late-afternoon games of Manhunt and amassing fat pillow cases full of candy while trick-or-treating when I was younger. But refracted through my new lens, the place just looked too Levittown, too modest, too cozy. Why couldn’t the houses be farther apart? Why did they all have decorative flags with turkeys on them posted above the front door? But the qualities that made me suddenly ashamed of where I lived—and, of course, ashamed to feel ashamed—were some of the very features that drew my parents there.

“It’s a blue-collar town,” my father told The New York Times in 2003, when the writer who was profiling him asked about where he lived. The public-health disaster of September 11 had thrust him and his branch of medicine—occupational health, which focuses largely on ironworkers and firemen and other blue-collar laborers exposed to health threats on the job—into unlikely prominence, such that now a major newspaper was interested in his life choices. “I didn’t want my kids to grow up in some suburb surrounded by other doctors’ children,” he told the paper. “I wanted them to have the same kind of life experiences I had. I thought it was important.” By the time the profile appeared, I’d graduated from college and had changed a bit from the wealth-whiplashed teenager so eager to impress and to belong. So I read that quote proudly, fascinated by the idea that my class identity had been constructed, in a way; that it reflected not only what my parents had, but what they believed.

Then again, maybe their approach just bespoke the most obvious thing one can say about class privilege: that it gives you options, more space to think about how you want to live. Of course, what one does with this space matters—there is a difference between lustily converting it into square footage like the Siegels and pausing to question some of the deeply ingrained American assumptions that The Queen of Versailles lays bare: that it is always good to live in as nice a house as possible, to rise in class if you can, to encourage your children to do the same. More than anything, the film left me thinking about how central class is to the story we tell about ourselves, and about how we prune and polish that story a thousand different ways—clothes, car, career, choice of mate—usually without talking about class. Unless, of course, you happen to be the child of a 1960s-stamped radical, in which case any old conversation might take that turn. A couple of years after college, after my family had left Jersey and moved back to our old neighborhood in the Bronx, I hung out with my dad on a summer weekend. It was too nice a day for a movie, so he suggested tennis, which I reminded him I didn’t play.

He smiled and shook his head. “What was the point of going to that bourgeois school,” he asked wryly, “if you didn’t come back playing tennis?”

Kate Levin is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles.