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The Queen of Versailles (2012) by Lauren Greenfield

Sundance Film Festival:

With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, The Queen of Versailles follows billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor.

Lauren Greenfield instinctively knows what questions to ask, when to ask them, and, more importantly, where to put her camera to mine this overflowing treasure of events. She constructs a series of glowing metaphors to concoct a fascinating character study of parents, children, pets, and household employees as their privileged existence turns upside down. The end result is a portrait of a couple who dared to dream big but lose, still maintaining their unique brand of humility. –Sundance Film Festival

Vicki Robinson for Film Comment:

Similarly, the winner of the U.S. Directing Award in documentary, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, deserved some of the buzz surrounding its subjects, billionaires Jackie and David Siegel. Greenfield follows the Siegels over four years as they try to build the country’s biggest house in Orlando, and then as the financial collapse brings down their heavily leveraged time-share business. 

“The Queen of Versailles” is in fact a small-town girl named Jackie from Binghamton, New York. The former Mrs Florida who married David Siegel, billionaire owner of Westgate Resorts, led a life of extreme luxury (somewhat messed up by their eight children). Originally a witness to the building of the Siegels dream house, a Versailles-like compound slated to be the largest home in America, The Queen of Versaillesfeels much like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous—until the economy tanks mid-filming, leaving the Siegels close to bankrupcies. The real estate and the time-share business itself turn out to be built on borrowed money and mortgaged promises.

As husband David grows morose and ornery, wife Jackie appears stronger and more constructive. But ultimately this is the story of not especially thoughtful people who got rich selling luxury and wallowed in it. It’s also hard to watch a film when you have to avert your eyes to avoid being constantly assailed by Jackie’s huge boobs. As the Siegels’ one adopted (and therefore only recently rich) daughter points out: “There’s nothing normal about this life.” The children appear only as background but seem strangely balanced. This is probably due to their two loving and capable Filipino nannies (one of whom has not seen her own child for over 10 years, which is one of the movie’s more telling moments).

Soon after the film kicked off the festival, David Siegel filed suit over its description in the program as a “rags-to-riches story.” But I found these people more than tiresome and preferred spending time with the wonderful inhabitants (aka the 99 percent) of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia

It’s actually interestingly enough a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, although it’s the last bit of that tagline that David Siegel is now disputing (ironically, he’s the one who came up with it in the first place; it’s a quote take from one of his interview sessions). 

I was seriously about to check out after only 15 minutes of watching these tacky trashy people wasting their time and mine, thinking that I had better things to do than watch that nonsense.

But then the 2008 financial crash happened and that definitely saved Greenfield’s film. Well, it certainly made the Siegel saga worth watching all of a sudden.

… Now, is it bad to admit that Jacqueline kinda grew on me? I don’t know what to say but there’s something about her that I find endearing. And when she asked the car rental clerk what the name of her driver was, that was priceless.