It is perhaps fitting for a documentary about a family who achieved wealth through timeshare sales to have something of a bait and switch structure, but unlike the cynical way in which this technique is so often used on unsuspecting customers the makers of The Queen of Versailles use this approach sensitively to smartly deliver a very difficult story.
This is the tale of an absorbently rich man (David Siegel) , his wife (Jackie Siegel) and their dream to live in the “largest home in America”, a huge building styled after The Palace of Versailles. This, and the many other ugly examples of the family’s hyper consumerism, constitute the bait, but it is the second half of this rather spellbinding film, the switch to a more sombre and sympathetic story, that makes The Queen of Versailles such a rewarding and utterly fascinating documentary.
As has been well documented, the economy took a nose dive in 2008 and its effects were widespread, not just on low income home-owners but on the excessively rich too. Now, it seems easy perhaps to mock the Siegels, especially in scenes such as when Jackie is seemingly so lacking in self-awareness that she even refers to herself as “common”, and many may find it easy to even celebrate the misfortune of these people. But are most people living in affluent countries really so different? The lessons that the Siegels appear to learn, and indeed those that they seem to fail to learn, in The Queen of Versailles are ones that many, many people are struggling with right now. As they overstretched with their home, their businesses and their consumerism, they became addicted to the ‘cheap money’ that the banks were handing out, confident and reassured by unscrupulous bankers that things would keep going up and up. Theirs is very extreme example and it is ones that is incredibly hard to sympathise with, especially when watching some of the absurd ways they spend their money and talk about their spending, but the message that comes out of The Queen of Versailles is actually a surprisingly universal one that has the potential to really resonate.
The film presents a pretty warts and all portrait of the Siegels, Jackie in particular, reportedly leading to legal action, but there are times when one can’t help but feel like director, Lauren Greenfield, does soften the edges. Ultimately though she appears to take the ‘give them enough rope’ approach and for the most part it works incredibly well. This seems to have been the result of a great deal of time spent with the family, Greenfield clearly earning their trust and getting to real truths rather than quick simple answers. Given time to talk Jackie Siegel, in particular, says rather extraordinary things that would not have perhaps come out in a piece that focused on the family for a shorter period of time.
At its best The Queen of Versailles plays very much like an impressive piece of embedded reportage, although in its weaker moments it does seem to step into familiar ‘reality television’ tropes. Any comparisons to this kind of television are swept aside quickly though by the quality of the filmmaking, it is technical very proficient, and the intelligent avoidance of any subject matter that is simply sensationalist .
An extreme microcosm of the deeply disturbing modern compulsion for consumerism without regard for consequence, The Queen of Versailles is far more thought-provoking and surprising than its rather shocking early scenes may first suggest.