Breathtaking wretched excess
'Purses are a good investment," says Jackie Siegel, happily claiming to own "a ton" of designer bags. "If you ever get into a bind, you can always sell them on eBay."
It isn't entirely clear at what point in the chronology of Lauren Greenfield's jaw-dropping documentary The Queen of Versailles Siegel makes this observation. Is it when she and her husband, the time-share mogul David Siegel, were still billionaires, living in a 26,000-square-foot "starter" mansion while they built a 90,000-square-foot palace - modeled on King Louis XIV's historic digs - down the road?
Or was it after the crash of 2008, when the time-share business went belly up along with the rest of the economy, and the Siegels were forced to lay off most of their staff, fire thousands of employees, and stop work on what would have been the largest single-family residence in America?
In any case, Jackie, a former model and beauty pageant winner who grew up in working-class Binghamton, N.Y., seems to know - in the back of her mind, anyway - that things could take a turn for the worse.
And, boy, do they ever.
A sad and shocking study in impossible excess and outsized hubris, The Queen of Versailles follows Jackie and her husband, 30 years her senior, as they welcome Greenfield and her crew into their lives: the limos, the jets, the little white dogs that yip around (and then get taxidermied and displayed in the halls after they die), the eight kids, the Filipino nannies, the ostrich-feather Gucci pants and crocodile Gucci boots, the gala fete for Miss America (all 53 contestants, and the reigning Miss), the swimming pool, and, of course, the Versailles under construction: 13 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, $5 million in marble from China, its own glass pyramid a la the Louvre.
The Queen of Versailles is a "riches to rags" story, quips David, his eyes filled with worry as his largest time-share property - the Planet Hollywood Towers Westgate in Las Vegas - is threatened with foreclosure. And although "rags" in this case is a relative term (commercial flights and Hertz rentals instead of Lear jets and stretch limos), Greenfield's film functions as a kind of funhouse mirror, reflecting America's buy-on-credit ethos and the "cheap money" mentality that fueled the market meltdowns.
Belief-defying and bizarre (dead pet lizards! dog poop on the carpets! warehoused Fabergé eggs!), The Queen of Versailles combines the voyeuristic thrills of reality TV with the soul-revealing artistry of great portraiture and the head-shaking revelations of solid investigative reporting.
It's a filmmaking coup, and an eye-opening look at a family's - and an entire culture's - catastrophe.