Movie review: 'Queen of Versailles' humanizes the rich
Mitt Romney, and just about everyone making more than $100 million a year, has taken a beating of late for being hopelessly out of touch. Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” does little to dissuade that notion, but it does humanize the upper one percent in a 100-percent entertaining manner. Or, should I say, manor? For that’s the 90,000-square-foot focus of a profile of a family that nearly drowned in its own excess when it began constructing America’s largest home only weeks before the 2008 economic crash. And lucky for Greenfield, she was there to capture every riveting moment of the clan’s financial downfall.
As is the case with most great documentaries, Greenfield didn’t set out to chronicle the rich munching on humble pie. She set out to document the construction of the tribe’s monument to opulence, the mansion they not so ironically dubbed Versailles, just like the French palace where its chief resident, Louis XVI, eventually lost his head. Fortunately, the only guillotine real estate mogul David Siegel faced was the one that lopped off his multi-million-dollar cash flow. Bad news for him, but it was even worse for his free-spending third wife, Jackie, who never met a big-ticket item she didn’t impulsively buy.
Watching her learn to tighten her purse strings is hilarious, especially when she relocates her shopping sprees from Neiman Marcus to Wal-Mart. But there’s also something intrinsically nice and charming about Jackie, a buoyant force of nature 30 years her husband’s junior, that makes you completely forget her gold-digging persona and thoroughly identify with the genuineness of a wife and mother who – like the rest of us – had to suddenly learn how to live within her means.
Yes, the Siegels are stinking rich, but they are also a microcosm for everything that’s right – and wrong – with America in an age of mounting debt and moral decline. They’re also a not-so-shining example of couples harboring secrets from one another, as we observe David working overtime to keep Jackie from finding out just how dire his situation has become. The one thing Jackie does know is that their Florida dream house is fast becoming a nightmare, so much so that they are forced to shut down construction.
You chuckle at her cluelessness, yet achingly empathize with Jackie, as she takes us on a tour of the half-built home with its grand staircase, nine kitchens and countless bedrooms and baths. That’s because we now all know what it is like to live with the threat of losing the home you worked so hard to acquire. You also see yourself in Jackie’s dealings with her eight kids, especially in her coming to grips with the understanding that she can no longer give them everything they want.
Less identifiable is Jackie’s iciness towards the people outside her immediate family, like a childhood friend in danger of losing her modest home. Instead of picking up the entire tab for her BFF’s huge debt, she writes her a check for a measly $3,000. Then there’s Jackie’s nanny, who keeps watch over the mistress’ brood but hasn’t seen her own child back home in the Philippines for more than a decade.
Still, Jackie somehow remains easy to like. That’s not the case with her husband, whom we see goading gullible middle-class families into purchasing a stake in one of his dozens of time-share resorts, even though he knows it’s something they really can’t afford. We also hear him boasting that he single-handedly got George W. Bush elected president in 2000, although, he hints, he might not have done so legally.
No wonder he’s suing Greenfield over how he’s depicted. The only problem is that he doesn’t have the full support of Jackie, who has continued to attend premieres and promote the film long after David began his legal proceedings. It’s not that she doesn’t love and respect her husband; it’s that Jackie loves and respects fame more. Not unlike the wives on dozens of reality TV shows, Jackie can’t resist being in front of a camera. And we can’t resist watching her flaunt her Versailles-sized personality. She is simply irresistible, even when Greenfield does a little fudging, like showing Jackie and the kids taking a limo ride to McDonalds and, later, asking if the car she’s renting comes with a chauffeur. Yes, the rich can be aloof, but not that detached. And moments like that meant to endear Jackie even more only make you resent Greenfield for being so pandering. She should just let Jackie be Jackie, which she smartly does for most of the picture. And it pays off big time with a film that not only offers glimpses into how the other half lives, but also how we’re really not all that different after all.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (PG for thematic elements and language.) A documentary by Lauren Greenfield featuring David and Jackie Siegel. 3.5 stars out of 4.