Published May 04, 2012In this era of reality television programming, with such hits as The Real Housewives franchise, it is no wonder Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles has captured the interest of many. The documentary's original intent was to tell the story of the obscenely wealthy David and Jackie Siegel as they build America's largest single-family home, but as fate would have it, the 2008 financial crisis transpired, sending the Siegel fortune into a tailspin. As David Siegel states, this is a "riches to rags story."
The 74-year-old mogul is known as the "Timeshare King," founder of the Westgate Resorts empire. He sets out to build his 43-year-old former beauty queen wife, Jackie, and their eight children a 90,000-square-foot estate. Their intent is to build a lavish home, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, which would make most people shake their heads. Yet according to Jackie, the family has outgrown their current 26,000 square-foot home and the upgrade is necessary.
When the American financial crisis decimates the timeshare business, which, incidentally, makes its wealth preying upon those with far less in their bank accounts, the Siegel family is forced to re-evaluate their spending habits. We witness moments such as Jackie, unaccustomed to the Hertz car rental experience, asking the rental agent, "What's my driver's name?" Similarly, we share the family's first commercial flying experience after being forced to give up their private jet, which is nothing compared to the horror of Jackie's bigger concern that the children may actually need to attend college and, God forbid, get jobs.
The documentary interviews the couple together and separately, highlighting that these financial hardships have created a significant wedge in the marriage. Jackie continues to overspend, buying four shopping carts full of useless Christmas gifts at Wal-Mart, while David expresses anger about lights being left on, which wastes energy, and money. And what propel these character dynamics are the many thoughtful juxtapositions peppered throughout this engrossing capitalist critique, like opulent mansion splendour followed by images of drying dog shit on the floor.
There's something fascinating about the demise of a stubborn old man that has made his fortune on those far less privileged than himself ultimately getting a dose of his medicine. The Queen of Versailles evolves into story of Siegel's fight to stay afloat when everything he takes for granted suddenly becomes his enemy.
Revealing, disturbing and strangely comical, Greenfield has stumbled onto enthralling subjects and a relatable, culturally viable theme. Everything moves at a brisk pace that keeps things compelling while avoiding passing judgment on the Siegel family by leaving it up to the viewer to decide if this is a cautionary message or an example of excess wealth gone bad.
Sadly, the film doesn't provide a final act, leaving us to wonder just how this captivating story will ultimately conclude. (Magnolia)