Movies in the age of the Great Recession have a tendency to focus their attention on the nefarious deeds of Wall Street’s villains rather than the more quotidian struggles of the folks on Main Street.
As an all-purpose symbol of America’s descent into the deepest global recession in decades, it’s hard to beat Jackie Siegel. Blond, buxom, and brassy, the former beauty queen and third wife of Florida timeshare billionaire David Siegel is clearly not built for the dire straits in which she finds herself in The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield’s new film about the disintegration of the Siegels’ opulent lifestyle in the face of the financial meltdown.
As lavish as that life might seem—at least before the Siegels’ Florida mansion fills up with fast-food wrappers and dog poop—the portrait in Greenfield’s doc is not so different from what’s happening in homes all over the world as people cope with the loss of the easy credit that kept Western society humming along for so long. While most people don’t have as far to fall as the Siegels do, they’re falling (and failing) all the same.
That things are tough all over is not the kind of unhappy news that Hollywood likes to deliver to its audiences, which may be why the most dramatically compelling portrait of life in Great Recession–era America has now arrived in the form of this indie documentary rather than a studio picture. Reminding people of how grim things may be outside the theatre is not the best way to sell tickets. Even when filmmakers have grappled with the economic realities of our times, they have a tendency to focus their attention on the nefarious deeds of Wall Street’s villains rather than the more quotidian struggles of the folks on Main Street, or even the gated enclaves occupied by the Siegels and other former members of the One Per Cent.
Thus the financial catastrophes of 2007 and 2008 were packaged in sexier ways, becoming fodder for slick thrillers like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, sober morality plays like Margin Call, and forensic-minded non-fiction whodunits like Inside Job and Chasing Madoff. In other words, the perpetrators of the crisis often earned more attention than its victims. In some of the most ideologically suspect examples, it’s the wealthy white man who’s made to seem most deserving of our sympathies, be he George Clooney’s corporate axeman in Up in the Air or Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that essentially portrays the Occupy protesters as the kind of braying, faceless mob that loves nothing more than decapitating members of royal families.
If the Siegels have any kin among the fictional characters who’ve recently graced our screens, it’s Channing Tatum’s title character in Magic Mike, the year’s most incisive feature about money and ambition in post-capitalist America. The shot of him carefully ironing the sweaty, crumpled dollar bills pulled from his underwear after a night onstage at the Xquisite club makes it perfectly clear that the most important thing in his thong is not what you think. And however easy it is for this hunk to get patrons to open up their purses, what this self-proclaimed “entrepreneur” most wants is another kind of career, a change that—if his humiliating trip to the bank in another scene is any indication—he may never be able to afford. That Mike ends up losing the few savings he does have due to someone else’s recklessness is another of the movie’s ironies.
Equally relevant is Magic Mike’s Florida setting. The hot weather may be conveniently conducive to displays of six-pack abs but it’s just as hard to miss the signs of blight affecting the state, a national leader for foreclosures and personal bankruptcies. The Sunshine State is also the setting for The Queen of Versailles, and it’s interesting to see how Magic Mike’s unflattering views of Tampa complement the decadent, last-days-of-Pompeii vibe that infects the Siegels’ Orlando. Together, both films present this overleveraged, over-mortgaged finger of land jutting into the Atlantic as the place where the American Dream finally runs out of both steam and available territory.
And while Magic Mike’s cynical take on its characters’ aspirations and limitations may seem to run counter to Hollywood’s reluctance to remind viewers of their own financial woes, it’s worth noting that the film didn’t originate as a studio movie. Instead, Tatum and Steven Soderbergh bankrolled it themselves. Now that its box-office gross has topped $100 million, it might be the best investment anyone’s made all year.