Lauren Greenfield’s farcical film of insipid decadence is a sickeningly delicious, fondant fancy of a documentary. The Queen of Versailles could be the Citizen Kane of MTV Cribs.
At the beginning of Orson Welles’ masterwork a newspaper reel flashes on screen with the words “cost: no man can say.” The headline refers to the vast, lavish estate built by Charles Foster Kane in the hills of Florida, named Xanadu. It may be strange to compare a film, that’s more akin to Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, to the magmum opus of cinema but Greenfield’s documentary absurdly echoes Kane’s extravagance. The Queen of Versailles chronicles a billionaire couple’s hopes to build a $100 million mansion in Florida, a modern day Xanadu but with botox laden inhabitants, during the world financial crisis.
David Siegel made his riches as the founder of the world’s biggest timeshare company, and was seemingly living the American Dream when he married a former beauty queen 31 years his junior, Jackie. In 2007, the pair began constructing the biggest household in America drawing architectural inspiration from the Palace of Versailles. When the world’s finances went into meltdown in September 2008, the Siegels were left with a half-built eyesore and an empire teetering on the edge. From riches to rags, the family – which includes eight brats – were forced to come crashing down to earth but their concept of the value of money remained alien.
Combining talking heads with a fly-on-the-wall style, The Queen of Versailles is a modern fable of excess spiralling out of control made all the more meaningful with the context of global recession. If you have ever ventured in to the murky, undergrowth of trashy television and found yourself watching MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen you will have an idea of how cringe-worthy it is. Revelling in someone else’s bad taste may be voyeuristic but recoiling in grandiose self-indulgence is a natural response. With a discerning eye Greenfield highlights the ludicrousness but also weaves a socio-political thread which makes the documentary both hideously funny and thought-provoking. Jackie, now forced (but incapable) to live within humble means, ponders why bail-outs were given to the bankers rather than ordinary people. A valid point, although utterly distorted through her complete lack of self-awareness – their lifestyle is anything but ordinary. We live in a strange, strange world.
Although completely out of touch the Siegels are not completely monstrous and you do not beg for their comeuppance. Jackie is the real star of the piece; at first glance she’s an archetypal bimbo but in reality she’s wiser than what you would think, and her exuberance for life is infectious.
It may not be Citizen Kane but it’s well worth a watch. The Queen of Versailles is a well-made documentary that will make you squirm, a little, with glee.
The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas 7th September 2012.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Stars: Virginia Nebab, David Siegel, Jaqueline Siegel
Runtime: 100 min
Country: USA, Netherlands, UK, Denmark