Dir: Lauren Greenfield. US. 2012. 100mins

The Queen Of Versailles

The public won’t shed tears as The Queen Of Versailles observes an American family fall from the upper reaches of the top 1% when the banks rein in their money. The reality check in this documentary comes as Real Estate king David Siegel is constructing Versailles, the largest house in the US, for his pampered former model wife and eight children. 

Jackie, the film’s Marie Antoinette, is a walking punchline in heels, and sometimes even she knows it.

With the look of reality television and the fly on the wall glimpses of unchecked excess that television delivers lavishly, The Queen Of Versailles doesn’t provide enough surprises to merit much more than an arthouse theatrical future, unless a strong festival run builds it an audience of crossover Kardashian fans.

The debacle that sent the $100 million Titanic of houses into foreclosure and an unsuccessful lawsuit from Siegel to stop Sundance from screening the film are novelties, but this is still familiar territory. Interest in the film is likely to come mostly from television shows worldwide that gawk at the obscene American rich.

Lauren Greenfield began observing the Siegels when the family had everything except the super-sized house – five nannies, exotic pets, political friends, and a designer wardrobe for motor-mouth wife Jackie. The banks turned off the capital flow to David’s time-share empire, and we witness Siegel lose his grip on a crucial Las Vegas hotel.

At home in Florida, where the family lived in extreme privilege, the newly poor little rich kids go feral in their huge house (where they had awaited the 90,000 square foot Versailles’s completion) and untrained dogs survive on cake foraged off the dinner table.    

Greenfield, a photographer, has an eye for the odd manners of the super-rich and for the grotesque sacrifices that American girls and women can make to achieve beauty.  Her portrait of the Siegels at home in Florida is a freak show of consumerism, with David, in his seventies, heading the family and his business and supporting politicians with the smugness that comes with piles of cash. 

Jackie, the film’s Marie Antoinette, is a walking punchline in heels, and sometimes even she knows it. Speaking in the accent of her humbler origins in Binghamton, New York, she talks of training as an engineer, although she can’t cook and leaves child-raising to Filipino nannies. Anarchy rules, well-funded by David.

Misfortune brings out Jackie’s compassionate side but even without money she shops blithely to soothe her pain, as David toils to find more money. If the film intends to show that any of the Siegels have gained any wisdom from hardship, we don’t see it. Jackie wonders why David’s hard-sell time-share business couldn’t have gotten stimulus money from the Obama administration. If this represents insight, then her kitschy fashion victimhood represents taste.

Greenfield’s still photographs can be a deft blend of the tactile and the meditative, which fix your eyes on them. In her doc, Tom Hurwitz’s camera is as interested in the architecture of Jackie’s bulging cleavage as it is in Versailles. Yet Jackie can’t stop explaining what’s going on (in what sounds like Mira Sorvino’s voice from Mighty Aphrodite), and the constant activity amid piles of glitz and, later, trash, precludes the immediate family from contemplating too deeply on their condition.  

Pity the poor billionaires who will never inhabit Versailles, now for sale at $100 million, finished… $75 million unfinished? The doc suggests that they will never starve. Poignant moments come when the family’s Filipino nannies talk of leaving their children for more than a decade to earn enough to build their own modest houses back home. As the Siegel kids shuffle numbly through the reality show ruins of the family’s golden age, the nannies’ tears are real.

Production companies: BBC Storyville, Impact Partners, Candescent Films, Plus Pictures, DR: Danish Broadcasting Corporation, VPRO   

International Sales: Submarine, www.submarine.com

Producer: Danielle Renfrew Behrens

Executive producers: Frank Evers, Dan Cogan

Co-producer: Rebecca Horn Black

Co-Executive producers: Allison Amon & Lisa Mehling, Julie Parker Benello, Abigail Disney & Pierre Hauser, Lilly Hartley, Mette Heide, Patricia Lambrecht, Jeffrey Tarrant

Cinematography: Tom Hurwitz, ASC

Editor: Victor Livingston

Music: Jeff Beal