The Queen of Versailles: Sundance Film Review

The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield

Why It Will Sell: Despite the legal controversy that has arisen around the film, this doc about a wealthy couple whose dream of building the biggest house in America is cratered by the economic crisis couldn't be more timely.

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Rep: Submarine

Income inequality goes Baroque in inadvertently contempt-stoking doc.

Lauren Greenfield's documentary follows a billionaire couple dealing with the harsh realities of the economic crisis.

PARK CITY — A particularly lurid look at pathological excess, Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles will prompt loathing not only among the so-called 99 Percent, but among those in the top 1 percent who would like someone more sane to represent them on camera. Timely but too closely related to much of today's reality-TV fare, the doc will play best on the small screen.

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When George W. Bush joked that his people were "the haves -- and the have-mores," the latter label applied to David Siegel, a Florida time-share mogul who brags of his (illegal, he hints) string-pulling in the 2000 election, "I personally got him elected." We meet Siegel and wife Jackie -- an aging trophy wife with outrageous breasts and a weak spot for garish fashions -- as they sit for a photo portrait by Greenfield, Jackie on David's lap in a gilded, cherub-adorned throne.

Quickly, the conversation turns to "Versailles," a mansion the pair are building because, as Jackie says, "he deserves it": At 90,000 square feet, it will be America's largest single residence, boasting ten kitchens, a private ice-skating rink, and enough tacky antiques to make Michael Jackson blush. It's telling that while the couple's dream house was inspired by the famed palace, it was most directly modeled on a Las Vegas theme-park imitation of French grandeur.

Then the 2008 crash comes, the time-share industry takes a dive, and things get tough for the Siegels. The outlook is so bad, in fact, that Jackie tells her eight pampered kids they might actually have to go to college to earn a living. (Somewhere in the darkness, a horde of student-loan-beset youths is gathering pitchforks and lighting torches.) As things get worse, the cluttered, dog-poop-riddled mansion threatens to become a Floridian Grey Gardens while Jackie refuses to stop shopping.

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To a certain extent, Greenfield gives her subjects enough rope to hang themselves as they moan over their diminished economic clout: David paints a picture of callous bankers who, having made him addicted to cheap credit, are now yanking the rug out; Jackie whines that she thought the federal bank bailout was supposed to eventually benefit "the common people ... us." The lack of self-awareness is staggering. But it's also clear that on some level Greenfield likes these boors -- that she gives them more credit than they deserve for small virtues, and bizarrely views their hyperbolic selfishness as a crystallization of the American Dream.

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The film offers a rare look at extreme wealth and its fragility (fragility, at least, for those who save nothing for the future), and it contains a few moments of affecting pathos -- particularly those involving the couple's domestic employees and the adult son David has from a previous marriage. But its cloudy perspective and unlikeable (if always watchable) subjects keep it from making any convincing argument about wealth and the ambitions behind it.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary section
Production Company: Evergreen Pictures
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Producers: Lauren Greenfield, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Executive producers: Frank Evers, Dan Cogan
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Victor Livingston
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 100 minutes