David and Jackie Siegel were in the middle of building the biggest house in Orlando, Florida—and the entire United States—when the recession took a huge bite out David’s billion-dollar timeshare business. In Lauren Greenfield’s zippy, curiously affecting documentary The Queen Of Versailles, the director starts out covering the construction of that mansion, then follows the Siegels’ efforts to keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on through the economic downturn, even if that means selling their dream home to free up some cash. The Siegels’ woes may seem like the kind that 99 percent of Americans would gladly take on, but The Queen Of Versailles makes an effort to understand where these modern aristocrats are coming from, and to extend them some modicum of sympathy, by emphasizing their ordinariness.
To an extent, Greenfield tries to have it both ways: allowing the viewers to enjoy the fantasy of being rich, while also showing the Siegels suffering a little. David and Jackie do look silly at times in The Queen Of Versailles, with their plastered-on smiles and trips to McDonalds in a stretch limo. But they also seem to be goodhearted, hard-working folks who earnestly believe that when they talk middle-income people into putting down payments on vacations they can’t afford, they’re doing them a favor. That’s what makes it so shocking—and even touching—when suddenly the Siegels have to lay off staff, and thus can’t keep up their home, which becomes strewn with trash and dog shit.
Greenfield’s chronology seems a little fishy at times, as the Siegels’ means fluctuate from scene to scene. But if nothing else, The Queen Of Versailles is a wondrous spectacle, filled with seductive images of luxury and startling images of decay. And the movie feels fundamentally true, too. Jackie and David came from modest backgrounds, became successful beyond their wildest dreams, then found themselves at the mercy of a social and financial system they helped enable, trying to figure out how to live on millions instead of billions. Ultimately, The Queen Of Versailles is wise about the ways the rich are different from us and the same. After all, even marble bathtubs get rings.