Documentary director Lauren Greenfield (Thin) returned to Sundance with another fascinating slice of American life – the winner of this year’s U.S. Directing Award for Documentary features, The Queen of Versailles is an unexpectedly amusing tale of delusion and disgusting wealth, toplined by a couple of American originals who prove to be wackily riveting. The film chronicles Jackie and David Siegel, incredibly wealthy Floridians best known for their attempt to build the United States’ largest single family residence, one they modeled after equal parts the Palace of Versailles and the top three floors of the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. There is perhaps no other sentence that could so accurately describe what kind of people the Siegels are.
Greenfield initially began documenting the lives of the Siegels when they were at the top of their game – David is founder, owner, president, and chief executive officer of Westgate Resorts, one of the world’s largest real estate and timeshare companies. Jackie, thirty years his junior, has a busy life, complete with caring for their eight kids and running various charitable endeavors. The new home – known just as Versailles – was something that they deserved. Versailles would have more than tripled their living space – upping the Siegels from a 26,000 square foot house to a jaw-dropping 90,000 foot home, complete with children’s wing, ballroom, movie theater, ice/roller rink, and so much more. But when the financial market dropped out in 2008, Westgate’s business (and, in particular, its crown jewel timeshare property in Las Vegas) crumbled and the Siegels were left to pick up the (gilded) pieces.
The Siegels are faced with numerous economic challenges – they cut back on domestic help, switch the kids to public school, and Jackie bemoans that they kids “might have to go to college now” – but they remain quite firmly one-percenters. Jackie is colorful and gaudy and hilarious, though she maintains that she’s just a normal mom. Yet, as someone who has not one, but two stuffed dogs adorning their house and who tosses off statements like “this is the staircase I would come up if I was visiting the children,” Jackie is anything but normal. David is also a different sort of man – in the delusional sense – as he talks about things like being personally responsible for the election of George W. Bush and for the Iraq War, while also proclaiming that he’s “saving lives” with his work (again, as the head of a timeshare company) and working to resuscitate, of all things, the Miss America pageant. The Siegels are, of course, hilarious to watch.
The audience’s assessment of the Siegels would seem to be a bit of a no-brainer – how the heck could anyone relate to these people? But when their version of hard times strike the family, charming Jackie makes an almost convincing plea for pity – stocking up on Christmas presents at the local Wal-Mart, picking up board games so that the family can use their gifts together, a weirdly normal moment in the Siegels’ otherwise extraordinary existence. But those moments of pity are short-lived and fleeting, as Jackie’s Wal-Mart run involves numerous cars, kids, and domestic help along to haul in her wares, a shopping trip that ends with a nanny wheeling in a new bike for one of the Siegel sons – a new bike that is added to a pile of at least twenty other unused bikes in the garage, carelessly tossed aside, no matter how new and shiny it is.
Queen of Versailles ticks along at a brisk and enjoyable pace, with Greenfield gracefully shifting the film and its focuses as the fortunes of the Siegels change. She approaches her subjects without judgment, a crucial move in documentary filmmaking, allowing her audience to make their judgments on their own. The film is often quite deeply funny, as Greenfield is adept at chronicling lives and feelings while also picking out weirdly prescient sight gags and random amusements. As successful has her portrayal of the Siegels and their lifestyle is, Greenfield’s film is left without any true sense of closure. After following Jackie and David for years, we are left without knowing what happened (or even will happen) next, instead getting a messy and sudden end to a captivating story.
The Upside: Illuminating, oddly hilarious, ceaselessly watchable, Greenfield stumbled on to some fascinating subjects and subject matter with her film. The Queen of Versailles will likely go down as a classic slice of documentary Americana, fascinating as both a cautionary tale and as a microcosm of excess and wealth gone bad.
The Downside: The film feels a bit unfinished – as if its been made without a third act.
On the Side: David Siegel sued Sundance, Greenfield, and the film’s producer Frank Evers (also Greenfield’s husband) before the film even premiered, saying that the film’s description was defamatory.