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Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary has all its pieces in place

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Queen of Versailles’ central character Jackie Siegel is not as one-dimensional and loathsome as she first appears.

Queen of Versailles

Directed by Lauren Greenfield

Opens at the Charles Theater Aug. 3

While watching The Queen of Versailles, you have to wonder just what director Lauren Greenfield was thinking during the stock market crash of 2008. Around that time, she was shooting a documentary on the Siegel family, who raked in millions during the housing-market bubble. They pushed the profits toward their most grandiose endeavor yet: a 90,000-square-foot home that would become the largest in America. Named after the palace Versailles, the home would still be under construction during the crash, becoming a deadweight as the Siegels veer toward financial ruin. The Great Recession presented Greenfield with one hell of an inciting incident: Her characters must make a change, lest they get swept up and dumped out by a world that just can’t facilitate their lifestyle anymore.

Initially, the film resembles a reality TV show, but the results prove to be far more compelling. And Jackie Siegel, the matriarch and central character of the story, at first glance appears shallow, self-absorbed, and disconnected from reality—you just want to dislike her—but Greenfield dives below the surface to uncover her history and the events that placed her on her current path. She depicts a well-rounded though highly unusual woman who seemed to evolve like a rare bird in the Everglades.

Growing up in Binghamton, NY, Jackie realized that her only career options were to be a secretary or engineer at IBM, so she opted for the latter, but the daily grind of the tech world took its toll. She fled for New York City, where she started working as a model, then headed south, where she landed the title of Mrs. Florida 1993. After one failed marriage, she met and married David Siegel, a successful real-estate mogul who made his fortune selling timeshares. (He also boasts that he’s responsible for getting George W. Bush in the White House, but he won’t disclose how, since “it may not necessarily have been legal.”) As the founder of Westgate Resorts, he profited in part from subprime mortgages and the middle-class dream to live rich, even if people couldn’t afford it.

The Siegels’ world is full of jaw-dropping moments, from sweeping shots of Jackie’s massive wardrobe to septuagenarian David flirting with a room full of Miss America contestants to their kids riding Segways in the house. Even after the crash, their lifestyle remains lavish by average American standards; one shot of Jackie bringing home a new bike for her son is followed by a shot of a room full of discarded bicycles, which vastly outnumber the children in the house. Though the film lacks narration, skillful shooting and editing like this says volumes.

Among all the over-the-top glitz, there are some truly bleak segments, like watching scores of middle-class couples sign up for quick and dirty mortgages to pay for David’s timeshares or the interview with one of the Siegels’ nannies, who hasn’t seen her son in 19 years. And then there are the rows and rows of empty cubicles, once occupied by the employees that David was forced to lay off. Queen of Versailles hones in on one particular family at the top of the financial food chain, but it manages to broaden its scope at just the right moments to present a portrait of just how broken our current system is.

Some laugh-out-loud scenes balance out the weightier subject matter, resulting in a film that’s altogether entertaining and enlightening. When Jackie stops by Hertz to pick up a car at the airport, she asks the clerk for her driver’s name, and the prolonged look of disbelief on the guy’s face communicates everything you wish you could say to her. To flesh out the world of the Siegels, there are more lightning-fast comedic shots, like the one of her snow-white purebred pomeranian gnawing on a cockroach on the marble floor or of David telling nearly every beauty contestant he meets that her particular home state is among his favorites.

Though Queen of Versailles follows a family known for excess, the film itself practices restraint in all the right ways. Rather than placing direct judgment on anyone, it allows events to unfold without intervention, save for some well-timed cuts and juxtapositions. The final product is a detailed snapshot of the nation’s financial turmoil, presented through a couple that attained the American dream only to see it decay into an abject nightmare.

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