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Culture Documentary

Lauren Greenfield/Magnolia Pictures


Lauren Greenfield/Magnolia Pictures

Documentary

The Queen of Versailles

Raw portrayal of two individuals suffering the death of their idols is the most distressing part

When photographer/director Lauren Greenfield met billionaire Jackie Siegel during an Elle magazine shoot, Greenfield was already preparing a long-term photographic work on "wealth, consumerism, and the international influence of the values of the American Dream." As Greenfield got to know Jackie and her husband, David, they must have seemed easy targets for a consumerism exposé.

The Siegels live in a 26,000-square-foot "starter mansion," which they hope to leave behind for their new home-a 90,000-square-foot Vegas-style replica of Versailles with 30 bathrooms, two movie theaters, a bowling alley, an ice-skating/roller rink, and a health spa, making it the largest home in America. Jackie, a former model and beauty queen, regularly flaunts her shiny purses, blonde hair, and super-sized chest implants. David-basically, Donald Trump with less hair-is founder and CEO of the world's largest time-share company, and his ego is as large as Jackie's, er, personality.

But even early in Greenfield's vision, Jackie shows a depth that the Kardashians don't. "I found her refreshingly friendly and candid," Greenfield later wrote, "with a combination of chutzpah, self-effacing humor, and lack of pretense, qualities that are sometimes obscured by the protective veil of great wealth." Jackie's life doesn't only revolve around material things. She and David have had seven children together and raised another child they "inherited."

But when the 2008 financial meltdown hit, Greenfield had to change her template. No longer uber-rich, Jackie shopped at Walmart, they let go their hired help, and they put their dream house, Versailles, up for sale.

Although the documentary is rated PG for thematic elements and language, its raw portrayal of two individuals suffering the death of their idols is the most distressing part (save Jackie's immodest dress). David loses his empire, and Jackie loses David's adoration. Without treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroy, it's a painful dethroning.

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Sony Pictures Classics


Sony Pictures Classics

Documentary

Searching for Sugar Man

Indie film sneaks into No. 7 spot at the American box office

Despite opening in only 28 cities the first weekend of August, Searching for Sugar Man, an indie film by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, quietly sneaked into the No. 7 spot at the American box office. And for good reason: Bendjelloul rightly describes the film as "like a fairytale, almost, like Cinderella or something."

Imagine a singer-songwriter comparable to early Bob Dylan-piercing lyrics and anti-establishment politics-with one difference: This artist never made good. Now imagine that halfway around the world, say in South Africa, a few kids heard his music and liked it. A lot. And from a few bootleg copies, the artist became a sensation bigger than Elvis or the Rolling Stones in their country, all without the artist knowing about it.

Despite how incredible that sounds, it's exactly what happened to Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. During the 1960s and '70s, South Africans were isolated by apartheid, and though Rodriguez's songs became the anthems of anti-apartheid revolution, his music was officially censored by the government. Once apartheid was over, Rodriguez's record label had gone under and rumors swirled that he had burned himself to death or shot himself in a final act of social conscience.

What was the real story behind his death? That question drives the documentary, as we retrace the detective work of fan Stephen "Sugar" Segerman from Cape Town to the studios of record execs in Detroit. The answer he finds is so wonderful that, in the director's words, it's "like learning that Elvis is alive."

The film stutter-steps at times, but the story is well-crafted and compelling. It is rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references, and conservative viewers won't appreciate Rodriguez's politics. However, Rodriguez is far deeper and more gentle than most rockers. And for Christians who feel unimportant by society's standards, the story of a man who lives without earthly fanfare, but who is more cherished than he could imagine may itself be a treasure worth searching out.

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Disruptive Pictures


Disruptive Pictures

Documentary

Bad global cop

First-time filmmaker Ami Horowitz makes a compelling and entertaining case against the United Nations

One of my most frequent criticisms of young Christian or conservative filmmakers is that in their zeal to jump into the movie game they often send out a product that isn't ready for primetime. No message is powerful enough and no marketing campaign persuasive enough to disguise a lack of time and effort. This is particularly true for documentaries, which rely so heavily on hard reporting and investigation.

This was why while watching U.N. Me I had to pause to look up writer/director/producer Ami Horowitz's biography. Did I really hear that this was his first film? Yes, I did. But when some further investigating revealed that he's been working on it since 2006, I understood how a freshman effort could be so polished and authoritative.

Though the number of years he dedicated to it unmistakably plays a part in U.N. Me's effectiveness, it's obvious from the outset that Horowitz has innate talent for the medium. He clears the biggest hurdles to successful documentary making with inches to spare, keeping a tight focus on his subject and digging deep to support his thesis. To gather evidence on the scandals, indifference, and outright criminality of the United Nations, he pounds pavement the world over, cornering officials, giving microphones to witnesses, and delving into archives. The end result is an indictment verified by people up and down the U.N.'s chain of command with paper trails miles long, all delivered with a wit rarely seen in political films. (There's no doubt that Horowitz owes something of his style if not his substance to Michael Moore.)

However, unlike Michael Moore and a number of documentarians on the right, Horowitz and his team aren't content to rely on experts in their own ideological camp. While he doesn't get many American politicians with D's next to their names on camera, he does wrangle plenty of face time with current and former U.N. officials as well as insiders and journalists who likely wouldn't agree with someone who's written for National Review on anything else.

Describing what he saw while serving as a U.N. peacekeeper, including arms and child-sex trafficking that went routinely unpunished, one young lawyer says sadly about the U.N., "They're bureaucrats in the most banal and cowardly sense of the word."

Nobel laureate Jody Williams is another standout interview (her brief profanity supplies the only objectionable content in the PG-13 film). An avowed liberal and Occupy Wall Street sympathizer, Williams is nonetheless scathing in her disdain for the U.N., which she developed while working for them. Tapped to investigate human-rights violations in Darfur, Williams returned from her fact-finding mission with a report rife with details on mass rape, property destruction, and ethnic cleansing. The U.N.'s Human Rights Council (which includes China, Cuba, Libya, and Saudi Arabia) promptly rejected her report without further plans for action.

Throughout, Horowitz's tongue-in-cheek questioning points out the primary fault line running through the U.N's approach to every conflict-namely that it adheres to a relativistic worldview that has no standard for immorality. But he goes further than this, drawing a connection to massive-scale evil in every age and how it is always facilitated by self-deemed intellectuals who philosophize away fixed notions of right and wrong.

What's the biggest lesson the international peacekeepers and self-proclaimed human-rights protectors learned from the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda, Horowitz asks former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno. "I think what one has to do following a tragedy like Rwanda," Guéhenno replies haltingly, "is not allocate the blame to one actor or another." Horowitz then suggests through interviews with journalists who covered Rwanda that by such logic the U.N. would similarly have had to reject any notion of guilt for the holocaust.

Horowitz covers many such outrages at the U.N., making U.N. Me a rare form of documentary-comprehensive, convincing, and (most unique of all) entertaining. It releases to select theaters on June 1, and for those who enjoy films that demand critical engagement and don't happen to live in a major metropolis, it is also releasing on Video On Demand.

Read Megan Basham's interview with Ami Horowitz.

Listen to Megan Basham discuss Ami Horowitz and U.N. Me on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

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