Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles has a clever way of luring the viewer in. If you caught it while channel-surfing, you could almost be persuaded this was another reality show following more of those well-to-do individuals we’ve made richer still in elevating them to the status of global multimedia superstars. Real-estate mogul David Siegel and his erstwhile beauty queen wife Jackie are shown at a moment of transition: they’re in the process of moving from their 26,000 sq. ft. Florida home – with its thirty bathrooms, its artist’s renderings of the couple astride a charging steed – to what’s set to be the largest private abode in America, modelled on the palace of Louis XIV.
All, initially, appears to be going well: if ever you wanted to see what five million dollars’ worth of marble looks like, Greenfield has the access to show you. But then a very different form of reality – the 2008 financial crisis – takes hold, and while construction on the Siegels’ project is delayed, the recession bites closer and closer. Siegel is forced to lay off first his company’s employees, then his own nannies; meanwhile, his wife has to start picking up the dog excrement that’s started to overrun the family pad with her own spraytanned hands. This pair suddenly became emblematic, of both the one-percenters and a nation living well beyond its means: what we’re about to watch is the fall of the House of Siegel.
For all that it may superficially resemble The Osbournes, don’t be fooled. The film has the heft and incident of a great state-of-the-nation novel: beneath the surface schadenfreude and fancy trappings – the ostrich-feather dresses and lionskin rugs, the limo trips to McDonald’s – there sits a core of sadness and anger at how the American dream has been corrupted by bad taste, poor judgement and rampant, unspeakable greed. Greenfield doesn’t have ad breaks to cut away to when she’s filming Siegel’s minions pitching Vegas timeshare units to couples who surely can’t afford them; she can hone in on the chill in Jackie’s smile when her sixtysomething hubby jokes about trading her in for two twentysomethings when she hits forty.
If the filmmaker was lucky with her timing, joining the Siegels at a pivotal moment in American history, she’s never less than judicious in laying this tale out, locating the bitterest ironies in Jackie’s reunion with her blue-collar schoolmates, or her husband’s slow downgrade from gold thrones to sagging armchairs. It builds towards a Christmas showdown where Greenfield’s cameras clock that there’s something simultaneously vulgar and tragic in her subjects’ compulsive acquisition; that it’s founded – like the financial system itself – on a deep and desperate insecurity. If nothing else, this fascinating, almost indescribably timely documentary – one of the very best, in an exceptionally strong year for non-fiction – might make you think about what Keeping Up With The Kardashians is really telling us about ourselves. In our society, that almost counts as an act of heroism.
The Queen of Versailles opens in selected cinemas from today. A full archive of my reviews for Moviemail, from 2001 to the present, can be found here.