It's become a critical cliché to argue whether the films of certain directors, like the Coen brothers or Todd Solondz, look upon their characters with kindness or contempt. As worn-out as this line of discussion may be, try writing an intelligent review of Solondz's recent Dark Horse without acknowledging it. And now the documentary The Queen of Versailles brings it up in a real-life context, as director Lauren Greenfield lays out a true story of excess and downfall that could just as easily been called Laugh at the 1 Percent.
Even passionate Solondz detractors are likely to have trouble holding back a chuckle or two as The Queen of Versailles' subject, Jackie Siegel, wallows in privilege — taking a limo to McDonald's, for example, or expecting Hertz's rental car service to provide her with a driver. Yet the film doesn't merely hold its nouveau-riche subjects up for ridicule. In telling their rags-to-riches-and-back-again story, it arrives at a leveling truth about the past few years' economic crisis: Whether you owe millions or thousands, foreclosure is a horrible process. Greenfield's gaze somehow synthesizes ridicule and compassion in a way that elevates her film above superficially similar reality TV shows like the Real Housewives franchise.
At the beginning of The Queen of Versailles, shot in 2007, the Siegels are riding high. David, age 74, is the CEO of Westgate, a company that sells time-share vacation apartments. Westgate employs thousands of people, with its own tower in Las Vegas and offices in Orlando, Fla., where the Siegel family lives. Already living in a palatial mansion, the Siegels — including David's much younger wife Jackie and their seven children — prepare eventually to move into Versailles, the single largest private residence in the U.S., with their staff of 19 servants and their menagerie of pets (including a pack of cute dogs who treat the mansion floors as their personal bathroom). Then in 2008 the economy goes sour, Westgate's customers start drying up — and the Siegels' dreams of living in Versailles go bust.
Your heart bleeds, right? And yet the Siegels are different only in scale from millions of Americans who live only one unwise-splurge-on-a-plasma-screen-TV/unforeseen-medical-expense combo from catastrophe. Botox, boob jobs and all, Jackie is no bimbo — she has an engineering degree and worked for IBM before becoming a model — but she's spent much of her adult life as eye candy. While her marriage to David seems unattractive, if not mercantile, she comes off as by far the more appealing of the pair. She has a conscience — at one point, she tries to help a high school friend save her own home from foreclosure — and she responds to the downturn by opening up a thrift store.
By comparison, David simply comes across as cold, self-pitying and self-absorbed. His boasting about helping George W. Bush into office through extra-legal means doesn't help. He worked his way up from humble beginnings, though, and the movie takes no pleasure in the threat he might return to them. He sees his parents, who had a serious gambling habit, as dupes (if not victims) of Las Vegas. When Westgate constructs a huge tower in that city, it's not hard to see it as him asserting dominance over the place for revenge. It gives his shifting fortunes an added edge of desperation.
Nevertheless, the fall of Westgate doesn't just hurt the Siegels, who can afford to cut back a little and refrain from moving into Versailles. David is forced to lay off thousands of Westgate employees who were merely making middle-class wages. (Ironically, many of them become customers at Jackie's thrift store.) The Queen of Versailles mostly abstains from gloating over the Siegels' downturn, but it lets stand the suggestion that what is a hardship for them equals trickle-down tragedy at the average Middle American level.
David has since claimed The Queen of Versailles is essentially rejiggered reality-show fiction, sued the filmmakers as well as distributor Magnolia Pictures, and demanded they add an epilogue showing that Westgate's fortunes have turned around. These offscreen actions only bolster the sense that the Siegels are fatally lacking in self-awareness, exemplified by their mania for collecting oil paintings of themselves. Then again, they may be stung by the irony that The Queen of Versailles has turned their monumental failure into a success — if not commercial, at least artistic.