Indie Snapshot: The Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield's new documentary The Queen of Versailles begins like a promo for the next big Bravo reality serial... call it, Timeshare Royalty. In this case, the subjects who are opening their lives (and their two houses) to the camera are David and Jackie Siegel, who up until recently were one of the wealthiest couples in Florida, if not the nation. David Siegel made his fortune via the timeshare titan Westgate Resorts, which offers lavish condo units to prospective part-time owners. Following two previous failed marriages, he wed former model (and diploma-carrying computer engineer) Jackie in 2000 and four years later they started construction on their dream house: a 90,000 square foot estate modeled after the Parisian palace for which it's named: Versailles.

If this actually were a Bravo series, it would probably follow the comical misadventures and manufactured drama of the Siegels and their large brood (their pack includes eight children and a gaggle of nannies and maids) as they spend their lavish wealth and transform Versailles from a construction pit into an inhabitable home. But that sunny prologue is just a set-up for the real meat of the story: what happens when the life we've so carefully constructed for ourselves suddenly comes crashing down? Which brings us to the events of September 2008; after decades of printing money, Westgate is severely impacted by the onset of the American financial crisis. Suddenly cash is flowing out of the company faster than it's flowing in, followed by layoffs and threats of bankruptcy. As he's downsizing his company, David and Jackie are also forced to downsize their personal lives. Nannies are let go, commercial airline seats are booked rather than private jets and, most importantly, construction on Versailles is halted and the entire property is put up for sale.

While the Siegels aren't in any danger of joining the ranks of the 99 percent overnight, the shift in their fortunes jars them out of their complacency and they react to the unfolding situation in vastly different ways. Already an aloof man, David withdraws even further into himself, hunkering down in his office and engaging in family contact only when it's absolutely necessary. His stated interest is keeping his company afloat, but one also gets the sense that there's a certain degree of shame that keeps him isolated -- as if he's loath to reveal the precariousness of their comfortable existence to his wife and especially their children lest they blame him. Jackie, meanwhile, takes it upon herself to keep the family's spirits upbeat; having come from a lower middle-class existence herself, she makes a point of acting as if she understands what it means to live on a budget. But the reality is that since marrying David, she's grown accustomed to the trappings of luxury and no longer entirely understands what life is like outside that bubble. (In one telling moment, she asks the agent at an airport rental car agency whether the vehicle comes with a driver.) She also still splurges on clothes and cosmetic procedures, both for her own comfort and out of a deep-seated fear that she might join the ranks of David's other ex-wives if she doesn't keep herself as well-appointed as one of his condo units. (And, based on the way that we see him brazenly flirting with various beauty queens -- not to mention his "jokes" about trading Jackie in for two younger wives -- those fears do seem to have a basis in reality.)

Greenfield's camera takes all of this in with a minimum of editorializing and more empathy than you might expect or that the Siegels perhaps deserve. The Queen of Versailles doesn't ask you to sympathize with their plight in a "Rich People... They're Just Like Us!"-style approach. But it also doesn't overtly condemn them for their excesses or take delight in the way that Siegel winds up being screwed over by the economic practices of some of the very elected officials he boasts about having put into office. The fact that David Siegel has gone so far as to file a defamation suit against Greenfield for the film is more than a little surprising since, all things considered, he comes out looking like more like an egotistical, but savvy entrepreneur rather than a money-hungry monster a la Gordon Gekko. (On the other hand, as a recent New York Times story indicated, Greenfield did make a few questionable choices in the way she constructed the movie's timeline that he might have grounds for complaint about, if not necessarily legal action.) Compulsively watchable from start to finish, The Queen of Versailles chips away at the aspirational fantasy that drives those Bravo shows, slowly, steadily allowing reality to slip through the cracks.

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