Director Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in The Queen of Versailles, an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream.
At first glance, a family like the Siegels is difficult to identify with. They glory in their profane wealth, living the kind of life that is so disconnected from any discernible reality that it’s hard to imagine how they ever survived without so much. Not that anyone was clamoring for a profile of people whose “struggles” include such hardships as flying commercial and buying everything at Walmart for Christmas instead of just buying everything. But it is a testament to the skill of the narrative that this family still feels relatable, despite their best efforts to distance themselves from the 99 percent. Greenfield wisely focuses much of her attention on Jackie Siegel, the 43-year old former pageant queen (and the film’s namesake) who seems to have spent the first part of her life commodifying her increasingly plastic looks, and is spending the second half trying to acquire all the commodities she can. She unabashedly boasts about her annual shopping budget exceeding most rich people’s annual income, and seems gloriously oblivious to any negative subtext to her habits. Jackie and her husband may have come from humble beginnings, but that humility stayed at their beginnings.
The towering symbol of the Siegels’ hubris is their unfinished palatial estate, modeled after the French Palace of Versailles. At first, the shell of what was to become the country’s largest single-family home was a point of pride for the family. But at the apex of their prosperity, the economic crisis hits, and even those who considered themselves untouchable, like the Siegels, feel the alien sense of frugality creeping in on their previously boundless wealth. This is where The Queen of Versailles really hits its stride—the family is both comical and fascinating when things are going well, but once they actually have to watch their money instead of just watching it increase, the challenge of living a measured life reveals who these people really are, often poignantly. David Siegel, the patriarch and breadwinner, becomes increasingly distant as his profit margin dries up. He seems incapable of accepting responsibility for anything happening to his business and his family, and they become burdens instead of balms. Jackie has grown so accustomed to the lap of luxury that even the slightest step outside that bubble confuses the piteous woman, and the results are funnier and more tragic than any Real Housewives episode.
Despite all the depictions of this family that show us who they are, the person that sheds the most light on the Siegels is one of their housekeepers. The sweeping grandeur of their lives is sharply juxtaposed with the small indignities of hers. Where her bosses aren’t satisfied with a 30,000-square-foot home, she proudly shows us the toy house she now lives in, a relic of someone else’s childhood. It is the stark combination of her happiness and the Siegels’ discontent that shows us all we need to see. And rather than browbeating her audience with platitudes about the evils of excess, Greenfield elects to simply show us a slice of life from the other side of the economic crisis. Unlike the Siegels, she focuses on quality over quantity, and the result is a rich portrait.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Starring: Jackie Siegel, David Siegel, Virginia Nebab
Release Date: July 20, 2012