Home is Where the American Dream Is

The Housing Crisis in '99 Homes' and 'The Queen of Versailles.'

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The Housing Crisis in ’99 Homes’ and ‘The Queen of Versailles.’

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

Owning a home would be the necessary and rightful rite of passage that every adult should go through. Owning a home is a dream to some, and a sure thing for others. Since the 1950s, when vets were granted mortgages through the G.I. Bill, the setting for that dream has been the suburbs. Houses were cheaper and you got more space for your money compared to the city. But this dream came to a reeling halt in 2010 with the Foreclosure Crisis, in which literally millions of people were forced out their homes. This crisis was a wake-up call from the American Dream. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore.

In depicting the crisis, cinema’s genre of choice was documentaries, not fiction. In her article “Nightmare on Main Street: The Big Short and 99 Homes” Jennifer Taub explains contends that “[t]ruth 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.” Many documentaries such as Inside Job and The Big Short did just that. Yet, the films that tackled their topics through stories of those affected by the crisis tended to resonate most with audiences. Of courses, audiences want to know what happened, but they also want to see what it felt like, assuming they themselves don’t know already. The Queen of Versailles from 2012 and 99 Homes from 2014 (both set in Florida) are two films that take on that task of representing the crisis through the lens of a family, albeit two very different families.

King and Queen Siegel

In 2007, the documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield set out to chronicle the construction of America’s largest private residence. A 90,000 square-foot mammoth of a house in Orlando, Florida, that they call Versailles. It was designed to have 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, and a health spa, among many many other luxuries. The owner, David Siegel, is the king of the time-share industry: the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts. But the documentary takes a serendipitous turn when Siegel’s company Westgate Resorts is badly affected by the recession. The Siegel have to stop construction on their house and start saving.  Their dramatic fall from grace is a caricature of what so many had to go through. At the beginning, his wife Jackie Siegel casually boasts about owning $17,000 crocodile skin Gucci boots, and by the end, they are (compulsively) shopping at Walmart. Riches to rags. But they are reluctant to sell their Versailles mansion and even more reluctant to sell their current mega-mansion. For them, building the biggest detached home in America is an extravagance that they justify as being the result of long, hard work. When asked why he decided to build it, David Siegel responds by saying “because I could.” If the American Dream is about rising far above where you started, then it’s also about going far beyond need. It’s about having so much money you don’t know what to do with. So why not build the biggest house in America. Both Jackie and David Siegel are keen to remind the viewers that they did not come from money. “I lived in a 1200 square foot, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath house,” Siegel says. Jackie Siegel, a former beauty pageant and computer engineer, describes herself as a small-town girl, “not a city girl.” She even takes a trip with her kids to show them the home in which she grew up in in New York State. For them, their credibility relies on the myth of the American Dream. As long as they can prove that they grew up in small homes than they can claim to deserve the biggest one.

Moreover, the success of Siegel’s time-sharing company Westgate Resorts is deeply tied to the American Dream and America’s obsession with feeling wealthy, if only for a week once a year. That is the genius behind Siegel’s concept: everyone wants to be rich, and if they can’t be rich than they want to feel rich. And so time-sharing was rose in popularity. It gave middle-class people the opportunity to live like a King for a short period of time once a year, at a very reasonable price. As Taub once again notes, “Siegel’s fortune, in sum, is built on democratizing the illusion of wealth and making primal dreams come true.” So if The Queen of Versailles gives a human botox-ed face to late capitalism, then 99 Homes offers a depressing look into the compromised lives of the wrongfully evicted.

Who’s to blame?

99 Homes centers around Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a laid-off construction worker 3 months behind on his payments to the Bank. When his Mum, young son and him being evicted from his family home, he starts working for Rick Carver, the very man that evicted him, a merciless villain played by Michael Shannon. Dennis’ family and he move to a motel overwhelming with similarly evicted families. Driven to get his family out of the motel and back into their family home, he takes up odd jobs working in homes Carver has foreclosed. Before long, he starts doing the evictions himself. In many ways, 99 Homes is a classic tale of the abused becoming complicit in the abuse of others. When you’re presented with the  prospect of making “more money you’ve ever made in your whole life” when do you stop at “enough money.” Dennis even finishes Carver’s sentence when he says this, that’s how cliche it has become. In one scene, Carver gives Nash a piece of advice: “Don’t get emotional about real estate.” What he means is don’t get emotional about kicking people out of their homes, but he also means that once you stop caring about other people’s livelihoods you can make a profit off of them. Eviction, especially very public and very humiliating ones like in the film, is one of the last nails in the coffin of the American Dream. For the dream relies on the illusion and the spectacle that all is well. You can’t pretend that you’re thriving in the privacy of your own home if you’re being kicked out of it.

Unsurprisingly, neither of these films have happy endings. As of now, Westgate Resorts is back on its feet, but there is still a housing crisis in Florida. So what these films impart on us is that homeowners aren’t to blame, but that the change does need to come from all of us. It isn’t just dependent on policy changes, but in rewriting the dream itself.

Writer/Director/Actor/FKA the girl at the party who'd ask, "does anyone wanna watch a movie?"