The documentary "The Queen of Versailles" begins life as a juicy guilty pleasure, allowing us to gawk and cluck at the nouveau-riche ostentation of an elderly time-share mogul and his much-younger trophy wife as they build their dream home: a 90,000-square-foot palace that would be the biggest house in America.
And then the economy collapses. And suddenly, in some ways, David and Jackie Siegel are just like us.
Sure, they're stuck in their 26,000-square-foot mansion in Orlando, Fla., which they're bursting out of with their eight kids, various nannies, maids and animals and wall-to-wall tacky furniture and artwork. Jackie, a buxom and Botoxed former model and pageant queen who's about 30 years younger than her husband, rides in the back of a limo to pick up fries at McDonald's.
But they're forced to lay off thousands of employees at Westgate Resorts, the company David founded and which made him a billionaire after coming from nothing. They face foreclosure. They end up sending their kids to public school and shopping at Wal-Mart. Now, they actually have to watch what they spend; they have to adapt.
Documentarian and photographer Lauren Greenfield just happened to be there to capture it all; having spent three years with this family, she found herself in the serendipitous position of having a dramatic, real-life story arc play out right in front of her. She never mocks them, never depicts them in cheesy reality-TV tones, and they trusted her enough to let her stick around once things went bad. (Although David Siegel since has sued Greenfield for defamation.)
The Siegels' lifestyle is still outrageous, but the sensation of panic they experience and the strain it puts on their marriage are relatable, turning "The Queen of Versailles" from a frothy escape into a sobering reality.
At times, it's actually rather sad. Jackie, all hair and boobs and ridiculously tight clothes, has a warm and welcoming personality but she's clearly a hoarder. Even when she's shopping at a behemoth discount store, she still buys eight of everything, and it's all stuff no one needs. An illness is evident here. It's a waste, yes, but it's also a distressing compulsion. The fact that she's so candid and no-nonsense, having come from humble beginnings herself, makes her that much more of a vivid, accessible figure.
And then there's David, who proudly admits in high times that he's constructing his own Versailles because he can, and who slyly boasts that he helped get George W. Bush re-elected through means that may not necessarily have been legal. By the end, he's hiding in his study, eating dinner alone, working all hours of the day and night trying to find money to keep his business afloat and his people employed. The crown jewel of his empire, a Las Vegas high-rise, features time shares bought by vacationers who couldn't afford them in the first place through subprime mortgages. We all know how those turned out.
These are not horrible people, just ones who flung themselves enthusiastically toward the American dream as so many do. As for Versailles itself - which actually was modeled after the French palace, with some touches borrowed from the Paris hotel in Las Vegas - it's unfinished but on the market. And the price has been reduced. So if you're looking for a place with a grotto, bowling alley, ice skating rink and 10 kitchens - including one for sushi - you may just be in luck.
"The Queen of Versailles," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 100 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.