Empathy for the Filthy Rich

“Filthy rich” is a dirty term, isn’t it? Not exactly a warm and fuzzy sentiment towards the people we love to hate, the ultra-rich.

Have you seen the movie The Queen of Versailles? I wish I could walk out of every thought-provoking movie and have an instant gathering to discuss it with others. So I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve seen it. I recommend it strongly.

This is the story of a couple, David and Jacqueline Siegel, who are building the biggest house in America, 90,000 square feet with ten kitchens, for their family when their business (time share vacations) crashes from its billion dollar a year sales perch, and they must adjust to life without “more money than they knew what to do with.”

Lauren Greenfield has done a beautiful job directing this documentary. I loved Jackie and felt genuinely empathetic for her loss of the life she’d come to know. I ached for her eight children, rattling around in a huge house looking for attention. It made sense why Jackie married David to begin with, after an abusive prior marriage and other struggles, and I genuinely believed her that if she ends up back in a small ranch house in suburbia, she’ll be fine. She’s enjoyed the lifestyle but it doesn’t own her.

Of course this is a “you gotta see it” situation; I can’t transport you to empathy for the sorts of people that we often caricature and love to hate. Yet people’s stories really are complicated, not easily reduced to one or two aspects of them. I appreciate author and pastor Tim Keller’s statement that when others do something wrong, we reduce them to a caricature, saying for example, “She’s a liar.” When we do things wrong we say “It’s complicated.”  Guilty as charged.

Yet this movie unflinchingly shows the excess and extravagance of a life with unimaginable money and big deals while gently depicting the dark underbelly of that life and its emptiness, as we watch the fallout for the family of a man who is trapped in that cycle and who does seem to define himself simply by his business acumen or failure.

Greenfield manages to make everyone in the movie a sympathetic character, even as she shines a light on a world that we love to knock, to parody, to hate.

No small thing.


Photo from Magnolia Pictures website

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