One of my moviegoing pet peeves is documentaries that condescend to their subjects. So I was worried about seeing The Queen of Versailles, about a staggeringly wealthy couple's attempt to build a 90,000-foot house, America's largest. Certainly their outrageous overspending is easy to mock, what with their expensively tacky furnishings, their fondness for exotic animals, their overall obliviousness (they feel cramped in their current, 26,000-square-foot abode).
And yes, director Lauren Greenfield merrily keeps her camera running as tycoon David Siegel and his much younger wife, Jacqueline, do and say foolish things. But Greenfield is careful with her film's tone, and the Siegels come across more sympathetically than you might expect. In particular, Jacqueline is a lucid and self-effacing interview subject, if at times a clueless one.
Greenfield filmed The Queen of Versailles over a number of years. In early scenes, the Siegels and their eight kids live opulently and await the completion of their new home, an Orlando monstrosity that is to feature 10 kitchens, a grand ballroom and a full-size baseball field. The house, which sits forlorn and unfinished, is called Versailles. The Siegels have modeled it on, yes, Versailles. They also have modeled it on the design of a particular Las Vegas casino. That's a telling detail, because the Siegels are, like Las Vegas, garish.
Then the financial crisis hits. With his company, Westgate, Siegel made a fortune building a chain of timeshare resorts. But many of his customers were subprime borrowers, and after the real estate market collapsed, Westgate was in trouble.
The segments documenting Westgate's travails remind me, favorably, of a Frontline documentary about the economic meltdown. The Queen of Versailles is as much about business as it is a family, and I'm fascinated by this look inside the timeshare industry. My customers may not be wealthy, Siegel says, but at least they can vacation like wealthy people. Great.
The Siegels adjust to having less money. The kids go to public school. Versailles is put up for sale. David grouses about the electricity bill. The household staff, which originally numbered 19, is reduced. In an unforgettable sequence, Jacqueline goes Christmas shopping at Walmart, supposedly to save money, but buys enough presents for a multitude.
The Queen of Versailles is a funny, poignant meditation on American materialism. I'm nervous, though, about liberties Greenfield apparently took with the chronology. The New York Times' Joe Nocera described them in a recent article. For example, the editing suggests that layoffs at Westgate took place after the financial crisis, but they didn't.
Documentarians do well to stick rigidly to the truth as it unfolded. Michael Moore likewise fudged facts in Roger & Me, and that diminished his film's impact. True, it didn't seem to hurt his career.