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The Queen of Versailles Jackie and her children in Orlando, Fla. (Lauren Greenfield/Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE)
The Queen of Versailles Jackie and her children in Orlando, Fla. (Lauren Greenfield/Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE)

The American Dream needs a renovation Add to ...

Is there a new American Dream in a country ravaged by recession and hobbled by unemployment, where middle-class incomes have stagnated for 10 years? There better be.

That hoary but irresistible phrase has been getting a cultural workout lately, thanks to a quirky and appalling new documentary, The Queen of Versailles.

The movie, which director Lauren Greenfield insists is a metaphor for the whole country, tells the entertaining story of a super-rich couple, Jackie and David Siegel, who set out to build, at 90,000 square feet, “the biggest house in America” and ended up, like many of their less wealthy countrymen, wounded in the 2008 recession, flat on their keisters, construction halted and bankers closing in for the kill.

Jackie Siegel, 43, blond, likeable, with breasts as big as the Ritz, and not a hint of arrogance, clip-clops through her days in platform shoes and short shorts, amiably tending eight children and proudly showing off the couple’s half-built, 30-bathroom, 10-kitchen Florida dream home, modelled on the famous palace outside Paris that became a symbol of excess during the French revolution.

She and her husband David, 30 years older (and still “doesn’t need Viagra,” she says with a satisfied smile), eventually end up on a guillotine of their own making, with his vast successful time-share business stalled, the private jets grounded, and poor Jackie forced to empty the shelves of Wal-Mart for one Christmas shopping expedition. Tant pis.

Most critics couldn’t resist linking this gilt-encrusted saga, which looks like a cross between Hoarders and the Shopping Network, to the poignant loss of the collective vision Americans have of themselves. As Ms. Siegel’s grandmother proudly says: “The American Dream is raising way up above what you started with and that's what she has done.”

But why and how did mega-mansions, walk-in closets larger than many classrooms and designer handbags so ugly and hardware-laden they should be banned as eyesores come to define such a precious and laudatory concept as the American Dream?

I’m not saying we’re pure in Canada (on exquisitely sunny days, our shopping malls are packed while our parks are relatively empty), but this wretched, mindless and undisciplined consumer excess isn’t about liberty or the pursuit of happiness. It certainly isn’t about equality. It is a paradox that such a dearth of imagination in this concept of the dream exists in a land that nonetheless pulsates like no other with creative and entrepreneurial energy and promise.

Millions of Americans live vibrant lives that have little to do with the pursuit of too much stuff, but many more millions have bought into a self definition that would make the founding fathers, however wealthy some of them were, cringe.

As one commenter wrote, after a New York Times piece outlined just how much the middle class has stagnated while the incomes of the upper 1 per cent have increased, “adjusting for inflation,” by 100 per cent: “Americans foolishly over-identify with the rich.”

That’s the ethos that the whole sub-prime mortgage industry was built on, convincing people of modest means they could live well beyond what they could afford because hey, that was living the dream.

Surely now the dream has to be modified as Americans head into the final few months of an election in which both Barack Obama, that “self-made, self-narrating” president, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls him, and Mitt Romney (“Mittington Romulus the Third” as he is snidely known on The Daily Show) – in very different ways – embody the American Dream.

Mr. Romney’s American Dream was to be born into a wealthy political family and make his own money in the predatory takeover business. His handlers are the ones who have to figure out how he gets to be President without looking like he’s rich and out of touch. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, raised himself way WAY up from where he started as the son of a white mother and absent Kenyan father. As a young man he seemed, at least through his books, to have taken a long time to figure out just who he was and then, bingo, he became President. He too risks looking like he’s out of touch as Americans struggle with the economy .

A friend living in the U.S. wrote to say she thought “meaningful work” was the new American Dream, but isn’t the dream now just a job itself?

Finding work, getting out of debt and living a meaningful life within one’s means might well be the new American Dream. A reformed health-care system, now validated by the U.S. Supreme Court, and help with education costs could constitute another. And while they’re at it, why not redo a corrupt political system in which candidates have to raise millions just to stay in the game?

Ever since I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby I have marvelled at the promise – and the pain – of the American Dream. The hero of this classic novel was a self-made man driven by emotional needs who set out to be the biggest and the best, and who, as Fitzgerald so memorably wrote, “believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

Yet even in 1925, four years before the Great Depression, Fitzgerald perfectly identified the flaws and the draws of the American Dream: “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further.… And one fine morning –”

One fine morning what? Another walk-in closet? Come on Americans, it’s time to rethink the dream.

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