'Queen of Versailles' takes the cake
Posted July 19, 2012
The wannabe royalty profiled in The Queen of Versailles (* * * out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in New York and L.A.) would never be as cavalier as to insist that the less fortunate eat cake.
Jackie Siegel, the 43-year-old former beauty-queen wife of 74-year-old billionaire David Siegel, would no doubt offer up McDonald's fare instead. This documentary, in which she is shown toting bags from the fast-food chain even as she steps out of a limousine, makes it clear that money can't buy taste.
This fascinating film begins in 2007 as a chronicle of conspicuous consumption, its focus trained on the gaudy possessions of a massively wealthy Florida couple. David made his fortune in the time-share business, and Jackie was a model and competed in pageants.
Director Lauren Greenfield's timing turned out to be extraordinarily fortuitous in its depiction of how the mighty also fall, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The point of the film is not to scorn or mock the Siegels, despite their excesses. They embody the quintessentially American urge to live beyond one's means. Their saga is simply the story of a nation's materialism writ large.
In 2003, the Siegels began triumphantly building what was to be a 90,000-square-foot version of the Parisian palace Versailles, within fireworks-viewing distance of Walt Disney World in Florida. When completed, it would be the largest house in America and would boast $4 million worth of mahogany doors and windows, 19 bathrooms, 30 bedrooms, a sushi bar, two movie theaters, a bowling alley and nine kitchens.
But in 2008, construction came to a halt. Their partly built, empty chateau became a symbol of the Siegels' apparently plunging fortunes. The couple, their eight children and five dogs never moved in, and the film shows the bank trying to auction off the estate online.
(Just before the film premiered at Sundance in January, the time-share mogul sued the filmmakers and distributors for defamation for portraying his Westgate Resorts company as financially troubled.)
As their lavish lifestyle had to be dialed back (no private planes and only four nannies), the Siegels underwent their own personal changes while living in their 26,000-square-foot "starter mansion" nearby.
Hilarious moments abound: After Jackie and her kids fly a commercial airline to her New York hometown, she prepares to rent a car and blithely asks for the name of her driver at the Hertz rental desk. The clerk explains that rental cars don't come with chauffeurs.
Despite her shop-till-you-drop expeditions, Jackie also exhibits a generous spirit, donating her family's used goods to a thrift shop, which also employs laid-off workers from her husband's company. She has an earthy sense of humor and a love for animals (though not for cleaning up after them). And she enjoys having a brood of kids — as long as there are nannies to do the daily care.
David comes off as brooding and cranky. Then again, he's immersed in struggles to keep his business afloat. He seems belatedly to resent his wife's spending, but insists on holding on to his grand estate. He brags about playing a large part in getting George W. Bush elected, but then adds that the way he did it may not have been legal.
Greenfield wisely avoids voice-over narration or anything that could be construed as sermonizing, and her fly-on-the-wall style allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. She has crafted a rather brilliant metaphor for, as Bruce Springsteen put it, the runaway American dream.
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