Looking at rich women: Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles and Daniela Rossell’s Ricas y famosas

Originally, Mieke, Claudius and I had planned to spend our Sunday evening watching Apocalypse Now. On a whim, we changed plans and ended up watching something closer to Financial Apocalypse Now: Lauren Greenfield’s prize-winning documentary The Queen of Versailles. Here’s the trailer:

 

A film at once exhilarating and terrifying, The Queen of Versailles provides an insight into the life of the Siegels, a »filthy rich« (as one of their daughters puts it) couple living in Orlando, Florida. The heroine of this movie, Jaqueline Siegel, a former beauty pageant winner who looks like she fell right out of a Russ Meyer movie, is the »trophy wife« (as another daughter puts it) of David Siegel, a nouveau riche real-estate tycoon.

Despite being a Republican who claims to be solely responsible for the victory of George W. Bush in 2000, David Siegel is a bit of a Francophile. He keeps Napoleon’s bust in his house (along with an oil painting of himself as a knight in shining armor) and he’d love to live in Versailles. Unfortunately, the real thing is not for sale, because »they use it as a museum«, as a real-estate agent puts it in this film. So, David Siegel aims for the second best option and has a replica of Versailles built in Orlando. Price tag: 100 million dollars. However, halfway through the construction of what is to be the largest private home in America, the financial crisis hits.

The Queen of Versailles is a mind-boggling and truly astonishing film, a) because of the way its protagonist display what some would consider a blatant lack of taste and b) because of the carelessness with which the Siegels let Lauren Greenfield catch them with their pants down time and again. The Queen of Versailles is stranger than fiction and could pass as a satire about the decadence of the richest 1 percent, except that Lauren Greenfield is no Michael Moore and looks at her subjects with compassion and curiosity rather than with cynicism.

Lauren Greenfield is a photographer by training and her film strongly reminded me of the work of another photographer: the equally amazing photo book Ricas y famosas (or Rich and Famous) by Daniela Rossell. Rossell shot Mexican women who share the riches and aesthetic preferences of Jaqueline Siegel. Here’s a selection of her photographs. The book apparently caused quite a bit of outrage when it first appeared in Mexico.

»Rossell framed her subjects with a pointillistic, attractive-repulsive exactitude«, the journalist David Lida writes in his excellent book about Mexico City, First Stop in the New World. Lida argues:

The juxtaposition of these women next to familiar Mexican iconography is a hallmark of Ricas y famosas. A slender blonde whose breasts are almost falling out of her shiny black shirt, fastened by only one button, is shot next to a portrait of the Virgin of Guadelupe. In many of the photos, brown-skinned maids and servants hover in the background, either dusting, with trays in their hand, or attentively waiting their charges‘ next commands.

Despite this quality that Ricas y famosas shares with The Queen of Versailles, Daniela Rossell says she neither wanted to expose nor ridicule her subjects:

 

The question then remains whether the »attractive-repulsive« appeal and the emotional power of both works, The Queen of Versailles and Ricas y famosas relies on a certain kind of sexism. It’s the 40+ mother of seven with her watermellon boobs and revealing attire that catches and keeps our attention like a particularly gruesome trainwreck – not the overweight 70+ macho wearing ill-fitting Aloha shirts. It’s the women who are not satisfied with being wealthy and powerful, but rather try so hard to also be sexy in a glossy, campy David LaChappelle kind of way.

I wonder: Is it easier to laugh about the »filthy rich« if they’re female? Is this only applicable to male (heterosexual) viewers? Or am I just being complicated?

Either way, I applaud both Lauren Greenfield and Daniela Rossell for their astonishing works that do tell us something about our day and age.

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