David A. Siegel is the billionaire president and CEO of Westgate Resorts, one of the biggest timeshare companies on the planet. Siegel is in the process of constructing the largest single-family home in the country: a 90,000-square-foot mansion humbly patterned after the palace of Versailles. Jacqueline Siegel is his trophy wife, a former Mrs. Florida and mother to six of his children. From its opening scene, a lavish beauty-pageant photo-op along the Siegel home’s grand staircase, The Queen of Versailles clearly registers its subjects’ greed and exhibitionism. The question that hovers over the film’s rags-to-riches-to-belt-tightening narrative arc is whether their subsequent chastened honesty is ever anything but a subset of the latter. David gives interviews seated on a gilded throne, a bust of Napoleon visible in the background, in which he claims to have been singlehandedly responsible for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential election through “extralegal means” (and that’s putting it rather politely). Jackie has a penchant for enhanced cleavage-revealing ensembles and shopping sprees that require a caravan of SUVs to carry home the swag.
Despite our apparent national fascination with “lifestyle porn,” evidenced by endless iterations of allegedly Real Housewives (or, for that matter, pretty much the entire lineup at networks like E! and Bravo), these aren’t people we’re immediately inclined to empathize with. Then the 2008 financial crisis hits hard, precipitated by precisely the sort of subprime mortgage bonanza peddled by Westgate’s timeshare hucksters, and Lauren Greenfield’s film evolves from an ode to entitled obliviousness to a more evenhanded character study, tracing the fault lines that develop within the Siegel family. The increasingly querulous paterfamilias goes into recluse mode, while Jackie and the kids get a taste of real housework (cleaning up after a menagerie of yapping, un-housebroken toy dogs) when they’re forced to downsize their domestic staff. (Jackie’s confession that she would never have had so many kids if she wasn’t certain there’d be nannies around to look after them uncomfortably straddles the line between clueless self-pity and pitiless honesty.)
Greenfield deserves credit for allowing audiences sufficient room to empathize with the Siegels’ plight while never stooping to pity them, an extremely fine line on which to balance a film. The Queen of Versailles is at its best when Greenfield delineates the push-pull between revelation and effacement: detailing the pep talks Siegel’s son and second-in-command gives the Westgate sales staff (all about dangling the illusion of affluence in front of blue-collar noses), catching the Siegel family in candid moments that contrast vividly with earlier interview segments where they’re more obviously in control, and, in a scene that literalizes the metaphor of effacement quite nicely, following Jackie into a makeover session complete with facial peel and Botox injections.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the intimate and often unkind nature of these revelations, the film’s veracity hasn’t gone unimpugned. Subsequent lawsuits filed on David Siegel’s behalf, as well as an illuminating piece published in The New York Times, have questioned the legitimacy of Greenfield’s editing techniques—in particular, rearrangements made to the narrative timeline in order to achieve maximum thematic weight and punch. Of course, allegations of misrepresentation are far from uncommon in the realm of documentary filmmaking; only a cinematic simpleton would take, for instance, one of Michael Moore’s avowedly agitation-propagandistic films at face value with the expectation of unbiased verisimilitude. The potent cocktail of ego, power, and prospective failure, as detailed in The Queen of Versailles, presents a far thornier bed of roses. Whatever the film’s ultimate truth value, it remains a compelling glimpse into the pitfalls of bankruptcy both economic and moral.