It’s Good to Be King: The Crisis Documentary and the American Dreamscape

Heist: Who Stole the American Dream
Directed by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey
Connecting the Dots Productions, 2012

You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter
International Film Circuit, 2012

The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Magnolia Pictures, 2012


Reviewed by Jeremy Varon

The Great Recession of 2007, certainly relative to its namesake disaster, has yet to produce Great Art—nothing approaching Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads, or Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the dispossessed.  Even Occupy failed to generate signature songs or oratory (although chants it had), or a distinctive iconography, save perhaps its tumblr testimonials and the spectacle of occupation itself.  Overwhelmingly, Occupy’s was an aesthetics of the deed.

The world of art, viewed broadly so as to include popular entertainments and agitprop, has been, however, far from silent on the crisis.  And one medium is conspicuously thriving: the documentary, or its close cousin, the docudrama.  Notably, the 2010 Inside Job dissected the anatomy of the housing bubble.[1] The 2011 HBO miniseries Too Big to Fail dramatized the opus of a leading financial reporter in a landmark explication of the banking collapse.  Even the fictional Margin Call (2011) had a documentary feel, distilling corporate machination to its operational essence, without need of a Gordon Gekko-like villain.

Much favors documentary as a form of witness in and to our troubled times.  Truth has appeared stranger and more tragic than fiction, as trillions of dollars just vanished, leaving the public holding the bag. Simply chronicling the sad epic seems dramatic enough. The imperative of accessible explanation, moreover, is especially acute, given the role of financial exotica such as collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in the meltdown.

Documentary has rallied as well its didactic prowess to address the great question of our era: just who, or what, was to blame?  Here the appeal to reality to build one’s case is hardly decisive.  In an age of hyper-polarization, each side exists in the universe of its own facts and talking heads, nearly impervious to persuasion by its rival.  Even if diminished, belief in the power of revelation has not disappeared, calling a new generation of truth-tellers with cameras to the scrum of public quarrel.  Finally, the ascent of the crisis documentary taps into the unprecedented ubiquity of “reality” as the stuff of barely mediated representation and a host of associated phenomena: the democratization of reportage by the digital camera; the televisual access we casually give others to our lives; the growing acceptance, fueled by reality TV, of ridicule as the price for celebrity; and the frequent blurring of the event itself with its spectacle.

Three documentaries from 2012 add to the accumulating body of work on our wounded economy: Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?, You’ve Been Trumped, and The Queen of Versailles.  Each expands critical understanding, whether by extending the analysis beyond Wall Street or casting exemplary narratives that bring both to life and into sharper focus the license and sheer absurdity of the capitalism of our times.  Screaming the need for large-scale change, the films also suggest the dim prospect of achieving it. A melancholy thus hangs over them, in which the beauty of small acts of resistance remains suffused with the ugliness of grand defeat.

Framed as a true crime epic, Heist proposes to tell the shocking story behind the collapse.  “The mess we’re in today,” it intones, “did not begin with Wall Street.”  Instead, it was the result of a “brilliantly executed coup,” entailing the “greatest wealth transfer . . . in the history of humankind” from the middle class and poor to the “super-rich.”

The tale Heist tells is a straightforward and, to progressives, a mostly familiar one, studded with the commentary of expert-advocates and a largely predictable cast of heroes and villains.  President Franklin Roosevelt is the first such hero, whose New Deal was a “great deal” for America.  Through jobs programs, unemployment insurance, pro-labor polices, and regulations, the middle class blossomed. Things, however, went to hell when, starting in the late 1960s, zealous capitalists, viewing “unions and government as the enemy” plotted their endgame of “business control of law and politics.” The first move was to chip away at corporate and estate taxes, the power of unions, and wages and benefits.  Equally important was the massive funding of right-wing think tanks and media outlets preaching a free market gospel.

With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, phase one of the caper was complete.  His well-known sins, from union busting to deregulation, were followed by the less-often-damned policies of Bill Clinton, whose free trade agreements and welfare “reform” bled American jobs enriched multinational corporations and pushed the poor further down.  Radicalized under Republican rule, but championed throughout by Democrats, the pro-rich agenda has yielded for the current generation stagnant wages and inequality on a colossal scale.

The gestalt of Heist is a garish portrait of grand theft by determined conspiracy.  Its most affecting moments are when its commentators articulate the perversions of perspective that underwrite our economic order. United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard explains that rich people, living in gated communities and with their own police, schools, and swimming pools, don’t need government; the rest of us do.  But government is branded the enemy of all of us.

Such moments are, however, too fleeting to rescue Heist from feeling like a Powerpoint presentation with some moving images. There are no “gotcha” moments in which a villain lays bare his villainy; no tragic profiles to give a human face to structural failure.  Above all, Heist begs but poorly answers the question of why ideas that are evidently so bad for most of us have proven so resonant, even popular.  It is not enough to suggest a simple case of ideological capture by moneyed interests buying the public debate.  A more rigorous account would take up the thorny issue of the widespread perception of liberalism’s failure, historically tinged with racial backlash.  So, too, Heist fails to appreciate the power of the popular equation of the free market with liberty—how, for many Americans, limited government is a moral creed.  Without acknowledging this commitment in terms other than crass manipulation, conservatives appear either simply crooks or dupes. Such an insinuation is a terrible basis for finding common ground, while playing into dismissive charges of liberal elitism.

Heist is likely most useful as a tool to deepen the faith of the converted.  By the same token, it points to the profound fissures in progressive doctrine.  Heist proposes reasonable reforms, from fair taxation to an end to corporate welfare.  That these goals seem nearly unattainable is good cause not to over-reach and to be content with giving capitalism a more human face.  But the very fact that the system seems impervious even to mild improvement suggests the need for an entirely new model.  The reformism/radicalism debate of the left is therefore restaged and not solved, no matter Heist’s “art of the possible” bias.

You’ve Been Trumped succeeds where Heist falters, providing a fine-grained account of a single instance of capitalism unbound: the effort, spearheaded by Donald Trump, to build a luxury golf course and grand hotel on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast.  Expertly composed, verité style, by its director Anthony Baxter, Trumped affords an intimacy of character and theme that conveys the truth of anti-capitalist axioms—that the state does the bidding of corporations, that law is servant to profit—far greater than the power slogans or connect-the-dots analyses to express.  It is an aching lesson in the skewed balance of power that asks, as its grace note, where human richness truly lies.

The film documents, as its core plot, the march of might against right.  Stepwise, the Trump project entails the Scottish national government overriding the local town council, which had rejected the development on environmental grounds; the harassment and threatened removal of local residents, whose homes Trump deems an aesthetic irritant; the collusion of local police with the Trump venture; and the bulldozing of the locale’s “dynamic sand dunes,” regarded as a national treasure by Scots and a site of unique geological interest by world scientists.  The film thus appears a tale of David versus Goliath, absent the magic slingshot to secure the inheritance for the underdog.  It also bears uncanny resemblance to the fictional, 1983 film Local Hero, in which a corporate dissident thwarts the building of a refinery on the Scottish coast.  Embracing the coincidence, You’ve Been Trumped pays explicit homage to Local Hero.

The film is, however, too trained on particulars to be reducible to any archetype or cinematic precedent.  The ingenuity begins with the depiction of Trump.  Trump’s bombast is so great a matter of public record that the film needn’t belabor it with B-roll footage of Donald blather.  More importantly, it views Trump through the lens of the locals, who remain unimpressed by his celebrity and contemptuous of his values. Trump’s power is conveyed mostly by its proxies: the luxury SUVs that dispatch executives for photo-ops; the private security and local police who, shockingly, arrest the filmmaker; and of course the bulldozers, whose destruction the Aberdeenshire loyalists capture with hand-held cameras provided by Baxter.  Trump himself, slinging insults at the locals, shrinks in stature as they grow tall, standing up for common-sense right in the face of gross predation.

The landscape itself emerges as the chief protagonist, lending a Faustian quality to profit.  The very beauty of the setting is the cause of the golf course being placed there.  But its construction threatens the habitat that is its raison d’étre.  The impossible solution is the fabrication of an ersatz beauty falsely trumpeted as eco-friendly and good for local jobs.

It is tempting to declare the earnest opposition the true victor.  None of the locals were forcibly removed.  A community of resistance was built and sustained.  Though the golf course eventually opened, the hotel remains unbuilt, further stymied by plans for a state-supported oceanic wind farm ruining site lines.  Trump appears willing to walk away from most of it, leaving a half-baked monument to apparent failure.

Yet the acceptance of sunk costs and Trump’s likely pivot to the next venue promising greater profit margins and fewer headaches, underscore the cavalier profligacy of the entire game.  And while humans may appreciate the relativities of the political score sheet and savor moral victories, for the dunes it’s all or nothing: once despoiled they can never be again what they were.  No mulligans or redemption in the next round.

Most tantalizing among the films and ultimately instructive with respect to the current crisis is The Queen of Versailles.  Begun before the crash, it narrates the rags to riches to unlikely demise of the Siegel family. Its patriarch, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, made a fortune as the king of the time share industry, boasting a far-flung empire of quasi-luxury units.  The family’s great conceit is to build in Orlando, Florida the largest home in the United States, dwarfing its current, palatial dwelling with ancient regime grandeur (“Versailles,” so named, demands $5 million worth of imported marble alone).  Thwarted in its goal, the family meets an analogous fate to the countless saps who, in the foreclosure storm and credit crunch, can no longer afford to keep, or attain, property.  The breaking of the Siegels’ outsized dreams serves as allegory for plebian disappointments, conjoining lord and commoner in a perilous culture of desire.

Like the house of Kardashian and legions of TV housewives, the Siegels are painfully bereft of taste.  Theirs is a low-rent sensibility miscast in champagne-land.  As old as the Beverly Hillbillies, this dissonance has carried the quintessentially American proposition that wealth has no need of, or bearing on, cultural distinction.  If once used to skewer the pretense of the hereditary rich, this device now gives free rein to pedestrian gluttony untamed by aspirations to refinement and incapable of shame.

The excess of the Siegels seems totally unnecessary, as the sloppy family appears neither elevated by nor dependent on wealth.  Mrs. Siegel’s grandiose tastes—for breast enhancement and unmanageable quantities of pets, bathrooms, and children—seem almost incidental to her enduring identity as a small-city girl seeking just a little more than middle-class comfort.

Even more so, Mr. Siegel appears unexceptional, begging account of how he accumulated such vast wealth.  His fortune originated in an insight at once primitive and brilliant: that most Americans want to be rich and, if they can’t quite be rich, at least to feel rich.  Hence, the time share property, where, for a surprisingly affordable price, one can experience a facsimile of luxury and live, if for just one week in the year, like a king. (Even modest units in the flagship Vegas complex are decadently sized and fitted with drop screen TVs).  Siegel’s fortune, in sum, is built on democratizing the illusion of wealth and making primal dreams come true.

Documenting this, Versailles exposes a psychological and cultural reality far more complex than that of Heist, with its facile division between the 1 percent and the rest of us.  That is, it reveals the mass participation and even complicity in a socially destructive fantasy, discouraging easy identification of an enemy over-class.  By extension, redemption depends not only on policy reform but also on the makeover of the American dreamscape.

The great irony laid bare by the crash is that the Siegels are no more truly wealthy than their time share owners.  The units were largely financed with just 10 percent down and subprime mortgages.  So too, Westgate depends for its relentless expansion on hundreds of millions of dollars in bank loans. As the bubble bursts, throwing property holders into foreclosure and choking off loans to potential new buyers, Westgate loses its revenue stream and access to bank capital.

Remarkably, the entire enterprise goes into free-fall, claiming hundreds of staff, scuttling the half-built “Versailles,” and threatening bank possession of the billion-dollar Vegas property for pennies on the dollar.  Almost overnight, the Siegels must worry about the cost of the electric bill and saving for their children’s college.  All along, and like the rest of us, they were just playing at being rich.

Watching Mrs. Siegel turn back into Cinderella, before her reign as princess, provides the film’s most poignant moments. As an act of charity, she sells copious household items at greatly reduced prices to the riffed Westgate staff.  Here we see another truism: that average Americans, in hard times especially, have great need of discounts.  Thrift and excess later merge as Mrs. Siegel overfills her Wal-mart shopping cart with gifts for the kids.  Most painfully, her newfound, relative poverty writes lines of shame into her face in ways that boasting of $10,000 pairs of shoes never did.

If Mrs. Siegel grows more likeable in her humility, Mr. Siegel grows less so.  Most infuriating is his incapacity to acknowledge an iota of blame in the carnage.  Early in the film he casually boasts of having elected George W. Bush via generous donations of “probably illegal” campaign cash.  Wondering aloud if the Iraq war was the fruit of his investment, he quickly moves past the troubling thought.  Increasingly obsessed with saving the Vegas property, and neglecting his wife as a now-tarnished trophy, he concludes only that business is a wicked game of boom and bust, and that he’ll get on top again, if only he can secure several hundred million in bank loans.

If this, too, is allegory—if Wall Street has learned nothing more—we have great cause for anger and worry.  The world, we may conclude, is better off without petty monarchs like Mr. Siegel.  But the question burns: can the rest of us do without being king, if only for a week?  Touché, Seigneur Siegel, touché.

[1] A roundup of films about or loosely inspired by the crisis is at: http://www.metacritic.com/feature/best-and-worst-movies-about-the-financial-crisis

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