The Queen of Versailles

The largest home in America, a mansion modeled after the French palace of Versailles that here is located within viewing distance of the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks, is currently languishing away, unfinished, and perhaps never to be, following the housing crisis of 2008.

What’s more, the estate’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, feel that this level of excess and splendor in their home lives exemplifies the ideal American dream.

All of this really makes you wonder if the American Dream needs reconsidering.

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “The Queen of Versailles” is a simultaneously critical and sympathetic portrait of how Americans cope (or fail to) with a change in lifestyle for the worse. It chooses the Siegels because they are both the most extreme of examples and yet the most familiar.

That’s why this film is called “The QUEEN of Versailles.” David Siegel himself is a wealthy billionaire and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share corporation in America. Jackie is only a trophy wife of sorts and a former Miss America 20 years David’s junior. She could be little more than a prop in another documentary, or a monstrous housewife in a trashy reality show.

But Greenfield must’ve realized that Jackie is the humanizing figure in this family, a woman with an Engineering degree from Boston who chose a life in modeling and pageantry. She’s spoiled and further spoils her eight children as a parent, but she’s very likeable. Jackie is exactly the woman you’d want to give you a tour around the largest home in America.

Greenfield photographs at low angles stretching to eternity to gradually paint these people as American royalty without them knowing it, and then she shows them going to McDonalds just because they want to as a way of bringing the Siegels down to Earth.

Through this we’re able to understand and judge their often filthy lifestyle. With so much space in their current home, there’s an obscene amount of clutter. Carpet stains are everywhere, lazy kids lounge unimpressed with their mountain of toys they didn’t know they had, animals lay dead and starved in their tanks due to neglect, and dog poop even litters the hallways.

“The Queen of Versailles” shines by peering through this muck. The Siegels are the far end of the spectrum, but this somehow feels close to the middle class mentality as well. One friend of Jackie’s loses her home to foreclosure because she shares her friend’s insouciance, and even Jackie’s $5000 donation cannot save her.

Where the film doesn’t succeed as well is in the sympathy department. There’s a difference between feeling guilty at all the lives David has destroyed by being forced to layoff over 6000 Westgate employees, including almost all of their 20 family maids, and feeling cheated by the “lenders” and “bankers” who got them into this mess. Who are these mysteriously evil banking figures if even the 1 percenters refer to them as a blanket third person?

At the end of the day, “The Queen of Versailles” is an interesting film, not a trashy or scathing one, about occasionally delightful people. It makes you think more about your own life than the Siegels, despite all the glitz and glamour.

3 stars

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