Truth or consequences

Solid-gold lifestyles and agents provocateurs: SFIFF's documentary highlights

Oh, boy: The Queen of Versailles

SFIFF It's possible to have an almost perfect Sundance Film Festival viewing experience if you hew to one simple rule: only go to the documentaries. Sure, see some of the dramatic entries too, after the 40th person has told you such-and-such title is great. But you can rarely go far wrong with the documentaries. Sundance has its pick of the annual crème de la crème in that genre (among U.S. if not necessarily international films).

As pretty much a "best of other festivals" festival taking place in late spring — thus perfectly situated to grab the best docs not just from Sundance, but also Berlin, Rotterdam, South by Southwest and elsewhere — the San Francisco International Film Festival can potentially offer the crème de la crème de la crème. Thank god documentaries, unlike that imaginary dairy substance, are not high in saturated fat or cholesterol. You can consume them for SFIFF's entire span and remain your slim, lovely self, mentally refreshed by enormous quantities of new information ingested the fun and easy way.

Actually, a portrait of conspicuous consumption in its most corpulent form was among Sundance's opening night films this January, and will duly boggle your mind at SFIFF. Lauren Greenfield's obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He's so compulsive that he's never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business.

When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family's stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much.

What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she's like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work.

Other docs pipelined from Sundance to SF include acclaimed ones about dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), Ethel (as in Kennedy), pervasive rape in the U.S. military (The Invisible War), and the Israeli military legal system that governs civilian Palestinians under occupation (The Law in These Parts). Of particular local interest is David France's excellent How to Survive a Plague, about how ACT UP virtually forced the medical and pharmacological establishments into speeded-up drug trials and development that drastically reduced the AIDS epidemic's U.S. fatalities within a decade. Don't expect much about SF activism, though — like so many gay docs on national issues, this one barely sets foot outside Manhattan.

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