The allure of boundless wealth provides fertile ground for documentarian Lauren Greenfield in "The Queen of Versailles," a glossy portrait of a billionaire too confident to face the reality of his impending financial woes.
Known by peers as "the timeshare king," real estate mogul David Siegel once built the largest and most expensive home in the country, a 90,000-square-foot mansion near Orlando that he was forced to put on the market after the recession hit. A self-made entrepreneur addicted to materialism, he never hesitates to speak openly about his burning desire. "If people don't need to feel rich, they're dead," he asserts--which makes "The Queen of Versailles" into a story of Siegel's battle to survive when everything he takes for granted becomes his enemy.
Slickly made if not particularly stylish, the movie maintains its entertainment value for picking ideal models of American excess. Siegel's former-model wife, Jackie, is a walking stereotype -- hopelessly enveloped in luxury, addicted to fast food, constantly adorned in skimpy outfits and fretting over her cute little dogs. Siegel sounds like he's only half-joking when he suggests he'll swap her for two younger wives when she turns 40.
He's the kind of guy with no reservations about speaking his mind, which makes him an especially generous interviewee. During introductory scenes that establish the couple and their posh world, he takes solo credit for the presidential election of George W. Bush, openly flirts with younger women and always puts his ego first. He holds nothing back when Greenfield puts him on the spot. "A lot of people are better off knowing me," he says. Siegel usually comes across as a maniac, but an enviable one, as the movie's early scenes relish in his ridiculously upscale existence.
After an amusing first half, however, "The Queen of Versailles" gradually shifts toward tragedy. Faced with economic hardships that endanger the future of Siegel's massive real estate empire, the couple chooses to put their home, "Versailles," on the market with an impossible price tag. Naturally, the number of people interested in throwing down a huge chunk of dough for a mansion containing both a bowling alley and an ice skating rink shrank drastically when the economy went south.
Greenfield's documentary never breaks its generally upbeat tone to dig deeper, but it benefits greatly from a tight structure and bountiful footage. It's not the first documentary to chronicle the coping process of rich people turned poor by hard times: The Danish documentary "The Good Life" followed a mother-daughter duo going through the same motions. However, that project takes place entirely post-downfall, while "The Queen of Versailles" tracks the Siegel family's experience before, during and after they hit a wall. The second, darker half owes much of its appeal to the stark juxtaposition it has to the scenes preceding it.
Thematically, Greenfield is engaging with issues similar to her terrific short film "Kids With Money," probing the lunacy created by a lack of financial restraint. The Siegel's children are presented as innocent victims of values gone awry, but they consume less screen time than David and Jackie, demonstrating the director's intent on foregrounding their borderline pathological state.
Greenfield comes dangerously close to mocking her subjects with a cheesy, ironic soundtrack that creates the feel of a reality show slowly spiraling out of control. On the whole, "Versailles" is visually straightforward, although Greenfield occasionally manages to draw out the emptiness of the Siegel's lives with slow zoom-outs of their increasingly barren rooms, emphasizing the inanity of their limitless space.
While consistently watchable, the movie is validated by the drama of its third act, when none other than Siegel confesses that "this is almost like a riches to rags story" (a statement that would appear to invalidate his pending litigation against the Sundance Film Festival for describing the plot in much the same way). Before Siegel's business dissolves, "Versailles" lacks a uniformly powerful edge, taking cues from its subjects until the economy destroys their illusions.
Siegel's expression reveals far more than he's willing to openly admit. After the suave confidence he displays in earlier scenes, his face starts to sag under the pressure of evident defeat. Beyond the schadenfreude-like kick of watching unmitigated royalty crash and burn, the gradual unraveling of Siegel's lifestyle puts the shock effect of the 2008 recession into sensational physical terms. When the family's capitalistic delusions melt away, the saving grace of "Queen of Versailles" arrives when Siegel's confidence crashes even harder than his bank account.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well received as the opening night U.S. documentary at Sundance, "Queen of Versailles" is destined to play widely in the hands of a midsize distributor willing to capitalize on its topical themes, but it could also benefit from TV exposure. Its best bet may lie with HBO or another cable outlet.