There’s many fascinatingly dark aspects of human nature, and none more so than our compulsion to see people fall. Either in the physical sense, a la the classic banana skin/Charlie Chaplin mishap; or the more cerebrally inclined, such as the Third Reich/imminent death of Thatcher. Like it or not, we all have this sadistic edge to our psyches, but filmmaker Lauren Greenfield relishes in it. Her second feature documentary, The Queen of Versailles is the ornate, unflinching portrait of capitalism gone wrong or, as the film’s focal protagonist David Siegel says himself, the quotidian “riches-to-rags” story.
We first meet 74-year-old David Siegel in early 2007. The billionaire CEO of the world’s biggest timeshare company, he has created his own empire from the ground-up; and, despite his senior age, David is determined to keep making money until the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking. Time is money, after all.
Every King needs a Queen. Wife Jackie is thirty years David’s junior, but just as tenacious. An intelligent former Miss America, she spends her days living off the fruits of her husband’s labour, buying $10,000 dollar Gucci sweatpants, inflated boobs, and anything their eight children could ever want.
But it’s still not enough. Deciding that their house is too small for them, they are in the process of building a new family home which – at 90,000 square feet – just so happens to the biggest in America; equipped with 11 kitchens, two Grand Slam tennis courts, an ice rink, and lavish interior design modelled on palatial Versailles and gaudy Las Vegas. It’s one behemoth of a property, and a telling example of America’s “Super-Size” culture. Unfortunately, they couldn’t foresee the economic crash right around the corner; halting the property and putting David’s company into a financial crisis.
With the recession being such an unforeseen global crisis, it’s fantastic to see Laura Greenfield keep her cool, even when the film’s motivation and intent is changing right in front of her eyes.
A tough time for us all, it actually makes The Queen of Versailles a more dynamic, entertaining documentary then it ever was intended to be (if the house development went ahead and they all lived happily ever after, this would have been a disaster of a movie). Some moments are so hilarious that they border on sitcom territory, such as when Jackie gets a chauffeur-driven limousine to pull into McDonalds so she can buy the children’s lunch; or when she hires a car at the airport after a domestic flight and asks “what’s the name of my driver?”. Jackie is clearly the more delusional of the pair, meaning that when the money dries up she is all the more emotionally distraught, eventually trying to justify her self-bought Christmas gift of a $2000 tin of caviar, whilst her discerning husband watches on looking at the consumerist monster he has created, and the pair’s eight greedy minions fighting under the 20ft Christmas tree.
Entrusted by her documentary subjects, Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles is a surprisingly multi-faceted piece. Causing laughter, tragedy and contempt, it attests that the overzealous American dream is probably best left as a thing of fiction.