This unique and hypnotic documentary, a cautionary tale about the rise and fall of obscene affluence, works its strange magic on multiple levels. For one thing, it’s a rare doc that benefits from the fateful shifts of history in the telling, achieving a quality of “character development” normally reserved for fiction films. In short, what begins as a half-admiring, half-admonishing chronicle of the lifestyle of the über-rich and wannabe famous — surrounding “time-share king” David Siegel and his former-beauty-queen wife, Jackie — goes south along with the world’s plummeting fortunes in the 2008 economic meltdown.
In the early scenes of the film, pre-crash, the Siegels are seen living it up in a lavish 90,000-square-foot mansion in Florida, patterned after Versailles. When finished, it would be the biggest house in America. “Why build the biggest house in America?” gloats the time-share king, sitting smugly in a chair resembling a throne. “Because I can.” Fast-forward to the end of the film, and his demeanor is coldly sober and dour: the hubris is gone, he has clearly been done in by his own “riches-to-rags story,” and he’s eager for this invasive documentary project to cease and desist. (Not surprisingly, Siegel sued for defamation of character upon the film’s premiere in January.)
In between those framing devices, The Queen of Versailles affords us a fascinating glimpse inside the worlds and, to some degree, mind-states of the family in the lens’ crosshairs. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield moves skillfully in the margins of their lives, capturing some tensions as the empire crumbles and skillfully shifting from reality television-style glibness to more of a cinema verité perspective. The ostensible star of this show, the “queen” in question, is seen primping and breezing through a life in flux, thankful for having risen high above her original station in life. If the natural instinct is to question her superficial, materialistic values, she frustrates our stereotyping with a can-do charisma we grow to love.
In the margins of the family saga at the center of the film, the broader subject is the obsession with money and materialistic excess in America. The family’s Filipino nanny, who lives in a retooled dollhouse in the yard, adds a poignant footnote to an all-American story of haves slipping into the realm of the less-haves, with have-nots in the shadows at every turn.