The image of Marie Antoinette romping around her palatial digs, utterly oblivious to the storm gathering outside her window, furnishes almost too perfect a metaphor for “The Queen of Versailles,” Lauren Greenfield’s often hilarious, mostly infuriating chronicle of the rise and fall of one of America’s most obscenely wealthy families. A story of financial turmoil told from the perspective of the 1% (make that 0.01%), this timely and involving documentary elicits both sympathy and schadenfreude, as Greenfield regards her all-too-vilifiable subjects with a complexity that should impress viewers of all economic and political persuasions in theatrical and tube play.
The docu’s world premiere at Sundance was briefly overshadowed by a libel lawsuit filed by one of its key subjects, David Siegel, claiming the description of the film in a press release as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags story” wrongly implied he had gone bankrupt. For the record, the words are uttered in the film by Siegel himself, and few viewers would argue with them on a figurative level. Mild publicity generated by the suit could bolster sales prospects, just as the current rage for trophy-wife trash TV could generate some crossover interest.
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Greenfield filmed Siegel, a 74-year-old Florida billionaire, and his 43-year-old third wife, Jackie, over a three-year period starting in 2007, as they set about building a 90,000-square-foot estate inspired by the centuries-old French chateau (as well as by the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino). Equipped with 10 kitchens, a bowling alley and a full-sized baseball field, the completed property would have been the largest single-family home in America, but the 2008 global economic crisis intervened, crippling Siegel’s mammoth Westgate Resorts timeshare empire and turning the dream house into a homeowner’s nightmare.
Making a pronounced shift from “Thin,” her 2006 docu about eating disorders, to this study of extravagant excess, Greenfield initially structures “The Queen of Versailles” as a barbed comedy of manners. Tom Hurwitz’s camera darts nimbly through the Siegels’ current home (a mere 26,000 square-feet), serving up a lifestyle catalogue of appalling opulence. Two of their eight children are shown bathing in enormous marble bathtubs; a lion and a white tiger are among the family’s more exotic pets. With children, nannies and animals forever swarming through the house, the film takes on the surreal air of a chaste bacchanal, a quality accentuated by the rococo interior design and Jeff Beal’s mock-classical score.
But once the bubble bursts and Greenfield’s interviews with both David and Jackie Siegel take on deeper intimacy, the film shifts almost imperceptibly into an emotionally acute portrait of a marriage and family on the verge of collapse. Plagued by doubts and worries, the work-obsessed, emotionally distant Siegel slowly loses all affection for a wife who can’t curb her outrageous spending habits even in the face of enormous financial constraints; given Jackie’s behavior, you can’t entirely blame him.
A lively, chatty blonde with a personality as irrepressible as her decolletage, this onetime model and beauty queen fits every dumb-blonde stereotype imaginable; she’s never more maddening than when she’s bemoaning the possibility that her kids might actually have to go to college and work for a living. Yet against all odds, Greenfield still manages to mine affection and humanity, highlighting Jackie’s own modest origins, her strong self-will (she earned an engineering degree years ago rather than settle for a secretarial job), her unflagging optimism and her abiding affection for a man she clearly loves for reasons beyond his once-fabulous fortune.
While Jackie’s presence dominates the film, the director’s intimate access to the Siegels’ household, work environment, friends and family takes the film down numerous side corridors, all of them fascinating. In particular, viewers who suspect Greenfield of going too soft on Jackie will find that the film’s most legitimately tragic subject is the children’s nanny, Virginia Nebel, who tells briefly of her 19-year absence from her own family in the Philippines, providing a heartbreaking contrast with the Siegels’ far more grandiose conception of the American Dream.
Tech credits are outstanding. In making its point about the Siegels’ domestic disarray once they lose their army of housekeepers, the pic could have done with perhaps one or two fewer shots of animal feces strewn about the house.