out of Five
Running time: 100
Hugely entertaining and frequently jaw-dropping, this is a fascinating and sobering documentary that tracks the unexpected impact of the financial crisis on one of America's richest families.
What's it all about?
Directed by Lauren Greenfield, The Queen of Versailles began life as a portrait of one of America's richest families, 74 year old Florida billionaire David Siegel, his (third) trophy wife Jackie (43) and their eight children, who live in a giant mansion, strewn with toys, animals and bad taste furniture while waiting to move into their dream home, a $100 million, 90,000 square foot model of the Palace of Versailles, which David is building as a result of his lucrative time-share-based empire, Westgate Resorts. However, when the 2008 financial crisis kicks in, David's subprime mortgage dependent business is suddenly in deep trouble and he's forced to lay off thousands of employees as the banks circle both the dream home and the jewel in the Westgate Resorts’ crown, a giant tower of luxury flats in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, as the family is forced to sell their various luxuries, Jackie becomes increasingly aware of their circumstances but is unable to stop spending, much to David's continual annoyance. She also adopts a series of beauty treatments and is painfully aware of his long-repeated threat to “trade her in for two 20 year olds” when she reaches 40 (though at one point he says he's decided to wait till she's 60 and get three 20 year olds instead).
Considering the situation the Siegels found themselves in midway through filming, Greenfield was granted extraordinary access to their lives and was privy to various arguments (often shot while lurking outside a half-open door) as well as being granted full run of the house. As a result, we see shocking details of both the children's lives and the state of the house: despite clearly loving her children, Jackie freely admits the childcare is left to the nannies (one of whom talks heartbreakingly about raising the Siegel kids whilst sending money to her own children in the Philippines that she hasn't seen for 20 years). And judging by the frequent and repulsive shots of excrement-strewn carpets, no-one seems to have any concept of animal house-training either.
While there is definitely a certain morbid fascination in seeing one of America's richest men reduced to selling off his assets and whining about “the banks”, Greenfield somehow also manages to elicit sympathy for the Siegels and you find yourself hoping that their marriage will survive, even as you watch the foundations crumbling.
The Queen of Versailles is an impressively directed documentary that's by turns moving, shocking and grimly fascinating. Highly recommended.
The Queen of Versailles (tbc)