‘The Queen of Versailles’: Downward spiral

July 20, 2012


Schadenfreude, the feeling of happiness at the misfortunes of another, is a tempting thing – mean-spirited, to be sure, but tempting, nonetheless. That’s particularly true when dealing with characters like the ones at the center of Lauren Greenfield’s stunning documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.”

But it’s hard to feel any joy at the cascading troubles visited upon Jackie and David Siegel, who let Greenfield and her cameras into their lives shortly after the economy crashed in late 2008 – taking David Siegel’s billionaire fortune with it. You feel pity, yes; and you get the occasional laugh (OK, more than occasional) at Jackie’s chipper cluelessness. But schadenfreude? Not so much.

“The Queen of Versailles” chronicles the Siegels’ travails from early 2009 into 2011. At the start, they’re partway through construction of their new home in Florida: a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity that will, when finished, be the largest private residence in America. It’s modeled on the Palace at Versailles in France and will have more bathrooms, bedrooms and other amenities than the average square mile of homes in a (vanishing) middle-class neighborhood.

At one point, Jackie takes a friend (and the camera) on a tour of the incomplete structure: “This is what $5 million of marble looks like,” she says brightly, gesturing to a stack of stone, awaiting implantation (or whatever it is you do with marble).

David, meanwhile, is a self-aggrandizing rich guy who takes credit for swinging Florida to George W. Bush in 2000 (“Can’t talk about that, heh heh heh,” he says). Jackie is wife number whatever. He’s got unhappy kids from other marriages spread around the country; his oldest son works for him – and works hard for his attention and approval.

Siegel made his fortune in timeshares. He buys them, builds them and sells them – and is seen urging his sales force on as he gets ready to open a massive new structure in Las Vegas.

Nothing is too good – or too much – for Siegel, a guy who commissioned a painting of himself and Jackie as a Roman emperor and his queen. He loves to spend money – and, apparently, spread his seed. Jackie, a former beauty queen from Binghamton, NY, happily pops out his progeny – eight kids, at the point the movie was made.

That’s a decision she eventually regrets, at least in the abstract: “If I’d known I wasn’t going to have nannies, I wouldn’t have had so many kids,” she says without irony.

But that’s what it comes to: As the economy contracts like a slug that’s been sprinkled with salt thanks to the economic policies of the Bush era (and, to be fair, the Clinton era as well), Siegel sees his empire start to crumble. As credit dries up, he is forced to halt construction on Versailles – and to try to get the message through Jackie’s head that they have to scale back their lifestyle.

That means letting half their home staff go. Jackie, who has what seems like a dozen dogs of all sizes, discovers that, in fact, dogs poop – in the house, when left unattended – and that someone has to clean up after them. Not her, of course, but someone. Except there’s no one left to do that job, so little doggie surprises dot the carpets and corners of the 26,000-square-foot mansion where the family still lives.

How pampered and clueless is this woman? At one point, she goes home to Binghamton to show her older kids where she came from. At the airport (after flying commercial for the first time in her kids’ lives), she goes to rent a car, apparently another first: “And who will my driver be?” she blithely asks the clerk at the counter. His jaw drops, but not as far as hers when he tells her that the cars don’t come with drivers.

You can take “The Queen of Versailles” as a metaphor for a country besotted with credit and wishful thinking; as a cautionary tale (Grasshopper, meet Ant) or simply as a fascinating look inside the life of a member of the .01% getting a taste of the reality that so many other people face everyday. Well, a small taste, at least.

Through it all, Jackie comes off as coddled but not mean, unlike her wolfish husband. He’s a pompous, self-important jerk – no wonder he’s suing Greenfield about the film. Not that Greenfield has done anything but give him enough rope to hang himself.

The best documentaries take you places you will never get a chance (or want) to visit by yourself. “The Queen of Versailles” is a rise-and-fall story that will have you laughing and shaking your head – in pity, disgust and, occasionally, outrage – at the very same time.

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