Sundance Film Festival 2012: Queen of Versailles Review

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Queen of Versailles, the latest film from documentarian and photographer Lauren Greenfield (Thin), follows David and Jackie Siegel, the 70-something Westgate timeshare mogul and his 40-something trophy wife who were in the middle of building the largest single-family home in America when the financial crisis hit, throwing Siegel's sub-prime mortgage-based timeshare business into a tailspin.

Forced by "The Banks" -- the Siegels, who gave Greenfield extraordinarily intimate access into their lives and home(s), always refer to their creditors as if they're an unknowable maleficent entity -- to auction off personal belongings, cease sales at the Westgate flagship in Vegas, and lay off thousands of workers, David can't manage to get his wife to stop shopping.

By their own admission architecturally inspired by "the top three floors" of the Paris hotel in Vegas, the Siegels dubbed their 90,000 square foot Orlando megamansion-in-progress Versailles. Even in the much smaller mansion which Jackie claims her husband and eight children have outgrown, the Siegels' prevailing aesthetic is Baroque: all taxidermy and gold plating, full of paintings of David and Jackie embellished to near-mythological perfection.

Blonde, Botoxed and artificially buxom, Jackie testifies repeatedly that she's been living off appearances her whole life. A former Mrs. Florida (when she was another man's missus), as matriarch of the Siegel household her main occupation is acquiring the things that will keep herself and her children outfitted in the style to which they've become accustomed; her main preoccupation is David making good on his promise to "trade me in for two 20 year-olds" once she hit her forties.

David Siegel is suing Sundance for defamation, for publishing a synopsis of the film in their catalog describing the movie as a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story" -- this despite the fact that, in the movie, he refers to his family's saga as "riches-to-rags." If he had any self-awareness at all, he'd be more concerned about a number of other on-screen statements. In a talking head interview with Greenfield and in archival news footage, he personally takes credit for the election of George W. Bush; speaking to Greenfield, he won't specify his role "because it might not have been necessarily 100% legal." Later, his son, a Westgate executive, gives a pep talk to sales staff, telling them that they're not allowed to let their marks leave without buying something, and that vacations have such demonstrable health benefits that their mantra should be, "Make a sale, save a life!"

Jackie makes her share of verbal gaffes as well. Talking about the bailouts, she says,  "I thought that rescue money was supposed to be given to the common people. Or, you know, us."

That kind of verbal runoff alone would make Jackie an ideal subject for a documentary, but that's not all she has to offer. Self-pitying, exceedingly generous and yet fully self-absorbed, a survivor of what sounds like a truly rotten first marriage and yet a full-on golddigger who admits she didn't marry David for his looks. She's an animal lover so incapable of throwing anything away that taxidermied former pets are strewn around her house -- as are way too many ostensibly living creatures, who suffer from the neglect of oblivious Jackie and her birds-of-a-feather kids. As the Siegels' hired domestic staff dwindles from 25 to 5, the house fills with pet excrement; when one animal is found dead, Jackie blames her daughter, who in turn blames the adults for not driving her to the pet store to pick up food. No one is able to assume responsibility for anything.

David cruelly credits the expansion of their family to Jackie's addiction to acquiring stuff. He's one to talk: As his financial situation becomes more worrisome, David increasingly sequesters himself in a room which seems to be a combined den/study. It's so crammed full of cardboard filing boxes and furniture that Jackie can barely squeeze in to bring him dinner on a tray. They're high-end hoarders -- and, one suspects, so deep inside their sickness that they can't see it, which almost gives Greenfield's all-seeing fly-on-the-wall approach an air of exploitation.

The sense that the Siegels have become trapped not just by their own gluttony but also by their guileless submission to Greenfield's camera is compounded by the fact that the film is way too long. Ironically, Greenfield's inability to part with her high-quality material even when it's redundant mirrors the problem faced by her subject. There's a scene in which one of Jackie's nannies brings a just-purchased new bike into the garage, and simply shakes her head at the pile of unused bikes already there. Greenfield doesn't know when to stop buying bikes. Still, her vision of a strain of nouveau riche both made and broken by imaginary economics stays with you: it's the wake-up call her subjects deserve.

[@KarinaLongworth]

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