A half-finished Florida mansion is the centerpiece of the funny documentary THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield is a thoughtful and arty chronicler of youth culture via her short film kids + money, about teens and consumer culture; her feature-length documentary Thin, about young women battling extreme eating disorders, as well as numerous photo exhibitions and monographs.
For her latest documentary, The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield steps away from kids and focuses on longtime couple David Siegel and Jackie Siegel, who start work on the largest home in America; a mansion inspired by the famous French royal palace as well as a Las Vegas high rise. Over the course of Greenfield’s lively movie, David and Jackie see their dream project come to a grinding halt when the economic recession and subprime mortgage crisis push David’s time-share company to the brink of collapse.
The Queen of Versailles, which premiered as one of the opening day films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, lacks the high art qualities of Greenfield’s other work but there’s no denying its entertainment value. Stepping to the left of the serious, sociopolitical subject matter of Thin, Greenfield embraces reality TV-inspired storytelling and the result is a frequently funny and surprisingly poignant look at an affluent family’s financial collapse.
Jackie, a former Mrs. Florida who’s thirty years younger than her elderly husband, is a busty blonde with lavish gold jewelry and as the mother of eight children (seven birth children as well as the guardianship of her teenage niece) often with an infant tugging at each arm.
Jackie steps into the spotlight early in The Queen of Versailles and never lets go. She’s a natural entertainer in cutoff shorts and a plunging neckline. Jackie embraces her cliché characteristics as a wealthy troophy wife from ignorance of how ordinary people live, raging shopaholic trips to the mall and vacant beauty queen banter.
Yet, Jackie also comes off as somewhat sympathetic, a Blue Collar woman from Binghamton, New York, who has successfully climbed the social ladder and seems content with the possibility that not only will their personal Versailles never be built but that her massive family may also lose their current luxury home.
David Siegel, the founder of the time-share empire Westgate Resorts, also settles nicely into the role as the villain of the movie dismissing Jackie as a child and constantly complaining about his wasteful kids.
The would-be Versailles is a character in itself and Greenfield and cinematographer Tom Hurwitz make beautiful use of Siegel’s half-built estate with aerial photography capturing the gargantuan scale of the Orlando, Florida, project.
Editor Victor Livingston maintain swift pacing swift from start to finish; giving The Queen of Versailles the bouncy feel of a quality comedy.
While the half-built house is a powerful metaphor for the economic recession, the heavy toll of the housing crisis and the class divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
The Queen of Versailles has its share of drama story and truthful interpretations of the housing crisis and economic recession. Still, with Jackie in its center spotlight, coping with the transition from private jets to commercial airlines and a reduced staff incapable of keeping their current mansion free of dog poop, it’s hard not to push aside the sociopolitical debate and simply laugh out loud at the craziness of it all.
Sometimes, a documentary isn’t meant to be serious even if there are plenty of politics to consider. Sometimes, a big, crazy, half-built house is simply a big house with plenty of crazy people calling it home.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Jackie Siegel, David Siegel
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Cinematographer: Tom Hurwitz
Editor: Victor Livingston
Producers: Evergreen Pictures, BBC Storyville, Impact Partners, Candescent Films, Plus Pictures, Danish Broadcast Corporation, VPRO
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating: Rated PG
Release Date: July 20, 2012