By Emma Bernstein | The Playlist June 19, 2012 at 9:56AM
“The Queen of Versailles” lives up to the dual meaning of its title. The documentary, directed by Lauren Greenfield, follows Jackie and David Siegel and their eight children – one of the wealthiest families in America – as they task themselves with building the largest home in the country, a mansion estate that they have dubbed Versailles. Midway through construction, however, comes the onset of the current economic recession, sending the family’s finances reeling and work on their new home screeching to a halt. Documented over the course of three years, this film showcases the slow demise of the closest thing this country has to an aristocracy, equating the Siegels’ financial downfall with the dethroning of a King and Queen.
The opening sequence proudly introduces the gaudy opulence and self-importance that will shape the next two hours. The camera trails across rows of framed pictures and paintings: Jackie in a prom dress with a crystal tiara, photos of the Siegels at their lavish wedding, a classically done portrait of the couple posing as Antony and Cleopatra. Shots of the house show off stone lions at the gates and Greek sculpture replicas in the marble bathrooms. A montage of the family boarding private jets and yachts precedes an image of true royalty: David sits on a veritable gold-plated throne, Jackie on his lap, repeated camera flashes capturing their bright smiles. As if the visuals weren’t convincing enough, when Greenfield asks them why they’re building a 90,000 square foot home, David replies, “Because I can.” Damn straight.
But it isn’t too much later that this dream world is shattered, the financial crisis nearly bankrupting David’s business, causing the termination of thousands of his employees, and making it so that the couple can’t build Versailles. Things turn bad quickly once money becomes tight. Aside from stopping construction, the family must lay off the majority of its household staff (some 15 housekeepers), which apparently means the task of cleaning just stops: disgusting shots of dog crap piling up in every room are only superseded in foulness by a moment when one of the kids steps in one such pile in his bare feet. I suppose even princes get dirty sometimes, but come on, really? Unsurprisingly, David stops calling Jackie “the most beautiful girl in the world,” instead likening his marriage to having another child. And in perhaps the saddest montage imaginable, shots of the family’s dead pets, lizards and goldfish that have starved to death, are sewn together against an elegiac tune. And yet, this is all kind of hilarious.
Jesting at the expense of the rich and powerful has been a pastime for the masses that dates back centuries. Laced with a certain irony throughout, punctuating interviews with incongruous images that say exactly the opposite, the film seems, at times, to relish the fall of the crowned. Casting a 16-year-old girl as the story’s moral conscience (“Nothing is really normal about this life,” she says), Greenfield leaves its audience wondering how aware or capable the adults really are. Similarly, by staging crass moments against the sumptuous backdrop, the documentary makes no secret of its disdain for the absurd wealth the Siegels have amassed. A shot of Jackie’s limo and driver parked in a McDonald’s drive-thru is one of many snarky images that litter the film.
At a time in our society when lambasting excessive wealth, while secretly and simultaneously craving it, has become en vogue, the use of this conceit is certainly topical. However, moments that intensely humanize the main characters interrupt the overriding derision, creating a muddled message from the director. The tone of the film shifts wildly, ranging from sympathetic to mocking, from a forgiving and over-indulgent parent to Robespierre calling for the royal heads. It’s difficult to tell whether or not Greenfield likes, or even agrees with, her subjects, making for an uneven viewing experience.
The original score by Jeff Beal, an appealing combination of classical and modern music, is incredibly successful in emphasizing the film’s tone. During its first act, when the Siegels are on top of their world, Beal’s music has the traditional richness of an 18th century concerto, highlighting the fairy tale nature of this story while referencing the era of the Sun King’s Versailles. As the family’s empire begins to crumble, and David and Jackie are thrust out of Fantasyland and into the realities of the present recession, the score compliments the changing storyline with a surge of modern tones and rhythms.
Earlier this year, Greenfield won the documentary direction prize for this film at the Sundance Film Festival. And her work is admittedly good here, as she pieces together a comprehensive portrait of the Siegel family. Yet, “The Queen of Versailles” will quite likely prove to be polarizing. Audiences looking for a feature-length version of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise will be pleased by the displays of exceptional wealth and candid interviews with family members; the mostly disparaging tone is also a derivation of the series. However, viewers may find the concept tired, and the subjects themselves frustrating in their obliviousness. Jackie’s seeming lack of knowledge or interest in her finances and her (possibly put-on) naïveté about cooking and cleaning sparked more than a few wearied groans at the screening this writer attended.
“The Queen of Versailles” is extreme from its outset and, to its credit, never shies away from the displays of excessiveness, putting the outrageousness of its subjects and the opulence of their home on full display for the masses to see. While Greenfield leaves her own opinion clouded, there is nothing murky about the fully realized characters she has on film. Jackie and David Siegel might not be the most lovable documentary subjects, but how and why they came to rule their kingdom – and then go on to lose it – is made more than clear. Marie Antoinette would be so proud. [B]