The Queen of Versailles
Twenty-first century parable
The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about David Siegel, a seventy-four-year-old time-share tycoon, and his forty-three-year-old wife, Jackie, who set out to build America's biggest home, in Orlando, Florida. Named for the place where the ancien regime ruled and finally met its match, the mansion was to boast some thirty bedrooms, ten kitchens, a pair of movie theaters, a sushi bar, and a closet that the filmmaker (or a friend) initially takes for one of the bedrooms. David Siegel boasts that he helped ensure George W. Bush's election in 2000 and that the means by which he did so were of dubious legality.
The life of the family (eight kids, five dogs) in their on-site temporary mansion of merely 26,000 square feet is already plenty luxurious, with an army of nannies, a plane, and a limousine from which Jackie Siegel emerges carrying fast-food takeout bags. A former beauty pageant contestant, she grew up in a modest neighborhood in Binghamton, New York. Returning there to visit, and eventually help out, an old friend, Jackie asks a car rental agent for the name of the driver who she assumes will be supplied with the car.
Then it all goes south. As the housing crash hits in 2008, work on the mansion is suspended, and it is put up for sale. The child care staff is cut to four; David Siegel broods in his chair; one of the dogs leaves its deposits in the midst of paradise. The family is by no means poor, but they're no longer in a position to aim for over the top, or even the top.
So far, identifiable enough--a morality play of the sort that, inflected a bit, can feed the obsessions of either the Left or those who follow the Kardashians. But it works out differently. The whole thing turns on the attitude of filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, whose perspective is friendly-neutral. You could call hers a fly-on-the-wall style, but it's even a click further
in the direction of sympathy; she shows up on the film's edges, asking a question or interacting with the characters, and it's clear she had total access. She is, it's true, being sued by David Siegel.
The end result accords closely with the familiar but apparently apocryphal conversation in which Ernest Hemingway told F. Scott Fitzgerald that yes, the rich were different--they had more money. The Siegels are not exactly likable, but it's hard for any of us to be sure that we wouldn't have responded just as Jackie did to the prospect of riches--or that we wouldn't have responded to the perfect sales pitches that built David's time-share empire in the first place. What's on display here is nothing less than the American Dream, which most of us pursue in our own ways, writ large.
Last spring's Cinetopia festival, where The Queen of Versailles was first shown, gave local viewers a leg up on independent feature releases from around the world. Several items from the festival program are coming back with a buzz, and The Queen of Versailles is one of them: it opens at the Michigan on August 31 and runs through September 6.
[Originally published in September, 2012.]