The recession writ extra-large in gigantic gaudy letters, director Lauren Greenfield’s unexpectedly moving documentary was originally intended to chronicle the building of David and Jackie Siegel’s dream house. A 90,000-square-foot monstrosity modeled after the French palace of the title, complete with a view of Disney World, this monolithic structure stalled out in Florida (where else?) somewhere a good deal short of its $100 million price tag after the stock market cratered in the fall of 2008. Seventy-four-year-old, happily hubristic time-share mogul David Siegel watched with incredulity as his empire ran aground, while his dim-bulb, pneumatically-enhanced trophy-wife Jackie had no choice but to clutch her artificially-enlarged chest and gasp at the horror of finally living on something resembling a budget. Greenfield lucked into a front-row seat for these billionaires suddenly being forced to live like millionaires, and because of a misfortune shared by a nation, The Queen of Versailles transcends its Bravo TV-show trappings to become something rather telling, and weirdly empathetic.
Sympathy for the 1 percent? I guess you could call it that. Watch perpetually flummoxed one-time beauty queen Jackie baffle a Hertz rental car clerk, asking for the name of her driver. (“Wait, you mean a driver doesn’t come with the car?” she continues as he shakes his head.) Living in an already gargantuan manse overrun with pets and servants, the layoffs wear so heavily, we can spot the passage of time according to massive clumps of dogshit piling up on the carpet. The hired help peels off, while Jackie Siegel still tries to drag a stretch limo through the McDonald’s drive-through and indulges in some retail therapy that borders on pathological.
The Queen of Versailles begins as fish in a gilded barrel, and it’s hard not to recoil in giggles at the gauche family oil portraits, or David’s absurd insistence on conducting interviews from a throne. But a weird thing happens as the movie moves along: We begin to feel for Jackie and stop snickering at her basketball-sized fake tits. An up-from-nowhere small-town girl denied any concrete notion of just how screwed her husband’s business is, she soldiers on and hopes for the best while we witness empty call centers and a doomed Las Vegas skyscraper. Siegel’s time-share business was based on aspirational luxury, and The Queen of Versailles is an ultimately haunting worst-case-scenario for Americans living beyond their means after the bottom already dropped out.
Around the time of the financial crisis, Greenfield started shooting a film on David and Jackie Siegel, he the billionaire owner of time-share giant Westgate Resorts, she his unusually likable trophy wife.