Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Queen Of Versailles [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
When The Queen Of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield first started filming the family of Florida timeshare billionaire David Siegel (including his wife, Jackie, their seven kids, an adopted niece, and multiple pets), it was to document the building of their colossal 90,000 square foot home that was modelled after France's Palace of Versailles. The mansion, when completed, would be the largest private residence in the U.S. and include the following: 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a 20 car garage, a two-storey wine cellar, a 7,200 square foot ballroom, a skating rink, a bowling alley, and a full-sized baseball field. After the 2008 economic collapse, the project was put on hold and the Siegels were forced to drastically adjust their opulent lifestyle. The turn of events makes for some fascinating and uncomfortable viewing as the documentary exposes the pitfalls of American excess.
David may be the breadwinner, but Jackie is the film's star. At 43, she's 30 years younger than her husband and seems like a character out of one of those Real Housewives shows, with shopaholic tendencies, a love of the camera, and a conspicuous disconnect from the realities that most of us unprivileged folk face. Examples of the latter are shown in hilarious and cringeworthy scenes that occur after David's financial struggles set in, such as the one where Jackie, now resorting to flying commercial after the family's private jet becomes too expensive, is taken aback when informed that her rental car doesn't come with a driver, as she's accustomed to. Then there's the scene where she's shopping at Walmart with the family, loading up multiple carts with things they don't need. A couple of bicycles are purchased, which beautifully sets up Greenfield's shot of the family arriving home and entering their sizeable house through a garage that's already littered with plenty of perfectly good bikes. Jackie is a fantastically compelling character, filled with idiosyncrasies and contradictions. She comes from very humble beginnings, yet doesn't see the madness of making a trip to McDonald's by herself in a stretch limousine to pick up dinner for the family. The former beauty queen also plays the spacey, buxom blonde role convincingly, but she's clearly no dummy (and even has a computer engineering degree). The garish taste of Jackie and David on display throughout the film is downright stunning - they're the sort of wealthy people who have multiple painted portraits of themselves hanging on the walls that depict the couple as characters from romantic novel covers, or posing regally in a Renaissance period setting.
David's storyline might not be quite as entertaining as Jackie's, but watching his transformation over the course of the three years that Greenfield and her crew shot is still thoroughly absorbing. Early on in the film, he's a mildly cranky, ego-filled business kingpin, someone who takes immense pride in having the brightest sign on the Las Vegas strip, where his timeshare holiday tower is being built. He also cryptically takes credit for single-handedly getting George W. Bush elected in 2000. As events unfold and his fortune dwindles, David is forced to become more humble, his personality becomes noticeably more curmudgeonly (witness the scene where he blows up over unused house lights being left on), and the ongoing struggle to hold onto his business seems to take most of the wind out of his sails.
While I'm willing to bet that Greenfield's original vision would have also produced a great film, her fortuitous timing of being present during the Siegel's financial downfall adds extra layers of tragedy and dark comedy to the story that make The Queen Of Versailles a standout. Resonating almost as deeply as the film's document of the Siegel's American dream on steroids is the amazing honesty and candour Greenfield draws out of her subjects, in both good times and bad (particularly the bad). Although Jackie has a good heart and a fun, larger-than-life personality, it's difficult to feel too much sympathy for the Siegel's plight when you're shown example after example of their reckless spending. It's also worth considering that the same corrupt financial system that aided David in amassing his fortune served to eventually undo him.
Interestingly, David sued Greenfield for defamation after The Queen Of Versailles' world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, taking issue with how he was presented in the film (the lawsuit is ongoing). Jackie, however, attended the premiere and has become good friends with the director.
Rating: A-

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