The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures, PG)

film versailles_75One of the film’s pleasures is simply getting to visit a world that few of us will ever know.

film versailles_500

To many people, the American dream comes down to one thing: owning your own home. And not just any home, but a big house in the suburbs with lots of stuff in it. The square footage of the average U.S. home has more than doubled since the 1950s, despite the fact that the average family size has decreased over the same period.

If bigger is better in terms of homes, then the happiest people in the world should be David and Jackie Siegel, the featured subjects in Lauren Greenfield’s Sundance-winning documentary The Queen of Versailles. When we first meet the Siegels, it’s 2007 and they’re living in a 26,000-square-foot house (about 10 times the national average) while constructing the largest home in America, a 90,000-square-foot mega-mega-mansion modeled on Louis XIV’s country palace, but with modern American touches like a bowling alley and a baseball field.

In truth, they are pretty happy as the film opens. David is secure in his fortune (he became a billionaire in the timeshare business) and his large brood (he and Jackie have seven kids, while he has an additional six from previous marriages). He also brags that he was responsible for getting George W. Bush elected president, but then declines to go into details. Jackie is relaxed and articulate, relating that she worked as a computer engineer for IBM (clearly no dumb bunny, she got her degree from RIT) before ditching it for a career as a model and beauty pageant contestant. We hear from several of the kids—who sound pretty much like any other kids—and also from a cousin living with the family who has experienced neglect and homelessness.

Things rapidly go south in 2008 with the financial crisis, and soon it’s layoffs and sell-offs and a considerably reduced lifestyle for the Siegels. (Jackie tells an airport clerk, almost with embarrassment, “I’m on a budget now.”) To the couple’s credit, both seem to take it pretty well at first, expressing regret for the need to lay off employees more than the loss of their extravagant lifestyle. Greenfield mostly avoids the temptation to engage in cheap schadenfreude, leaving that to clips of television coverage of the Siegel’s need to put their gargantuan, still-incomplete home up for sale (seriously—you see the MLS listing) for “only” $100 million completed, $75 million “as is.”

Greenfield and her crew achieved extraordinary access to the Siegel’s lives, and one of the film’s pleasures is simply getting to visit a world that few of us will ever know. Another is the peek behind the curtain of the timeshare business. It’s priceless to see one of Siegel’s sons delivering a pep talk to the salesmen, telling them without a trace of irony that they’re not selling condos, they’re saving lives. Then you see the buyers, who appear to be from the lower rungs of the middle class, signing on the dotted line, and the whole scene starts to feel more like an outtake from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross than the realization of anyone’s dream (except perhaps that of the salesmen, and ultimately of David Siegel).

The Queen of Versailles offers a fascinating window into the experiences of one family, admittedly one living at the extreme upper end of the financial spectrum, as they try to cope with how their lives have changed since the banking crisis. Greenfield doesn’t entirely pass on the chance to make the Siegels look ridiculous, but she also lets their humanity show. What is most surprising, in the end, is how similar their reactions, emotional and otherwise, are to those of people in far more modest financial circumstances who have suffered proportionately similar losses. | Sarah Boslaugh

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