The Queen of Versailles presents a fascinating case study of how the collapsing economy impacted the superrich. It will also likely drive anybody who isn’t the superrich up the wall.
It’s difficult to imagine David Siegel wanting for much. A self-made real estate mogul and so-called “time-share king,” the Florida-based Siegel is surrounded with signposts of his success: a private jet, a household staff of 20, and the ear of the president. But it’s human nature to crave more, and so, with his third wife, Jackie, a Chicken McNugget-munching former beauty-pageant queen 30 years his junior, David is building a 90,000-square-foot palace modeled after Versailles to house their seven biological children (an orphaned niece was also adopted, and David has several grown children). The new house, which is under construction when the film begins, will feature an ice-skating rink, a full-sized baseball field, and a sushi bar.
Documentarian Lauren Greenfield embeds herself into this bizarro land of blinkered wealth and Real Housewives-like dunderheadedness – and really, there’s no better word than “embeds” to describe the kind of unfiltered access she has into la famille Siegel. Sweet-natured Jackie can’t get enough of the camera, gleefully showing her way around her future palace. (A friend points to a cavernous space, asking Jackie if that will be her bedroom. No, Jackie responds: That's the closet.) David, too, is candid, even clubby with the filmmakers. (He’s since denounced the film.) On camera, he claims to have personally gotten George W. Bush elected; when pressed to explain, David demurs, citing the questionable legality of his methods. Still, he’s made his point.
Less certain is the film’s point. After the Siegels take a hit in the housing crisis and recession, the film details their cost-cutting measures: David lays off thousands of employees, Jackie reduces their staff to a handful, and work on their wannabe Versailles grinds to a halt. But Jackie proves hapless at running a home on her own – dog shit accumulates on the carpet and a pet reptile dies from malnourishment. Whether you find this sort of idiocy entertaining or deeply infuriating probably matches up with your tolerance for Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. The Queen of Versailles encourages the very worst tendencies in the audience: to sneer at the Siegels, to marvel at their tackiness, to root for their fall from grace. As a still-developing story, the film’s coda probably won’t satisfy anyone gunning for a comeuppance. Indeed, just this week it was announced that construction had begun anew on the palace – Louis and Marie live to see another day, it seems. I couldn’t care less; 100 minutes has exhausted all my interest in the Siegels.