Directed by Lauren Greenfield. PG. 100 min. Opens Aug. 3.
Countless households felt a pinch—or maybe a chokehold—when the global economy nearly imploded four years ago. But few tales of downward mobility can compare with the one recounted in The Queen of Versailles. A true-life tragicomedy by American photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, this Sundance prizewinner details the precipitous decline of a family that once made a point of flaunting its wealth.
In fact, Greenfield originally set out to make a movie about her subjects’ plans to build what would’ve been the largest private residence in the U.S. The billionaire founder of timeshare-condo developer Westgate Resorts, David Siegel had begun construction on a 90,000-square-foot mansion not far from the home he shared in Orlando with his buxom third wife, Jackie, and their seven kids. Instead, Westgate’s business woes due to the credit crunch soon had the Siegels struggling to maintain their lavish lifestyle.
Viewers may likewise struggle to decide whether the Siegels deserve their sympathy or contempt. The Queen of Versailles elicits both in equal measure, though it’s hard not to feel some affection for Jackie, a former beauty queen whose sometimes snobby demeanour belies her essentially big-hearted nature and troubled past. Her bewildered attempts to deal with the family’s dire straits generate much queasy humour. In one scene, she’s surprised to learn a rental car doesn’t come with a chauffeur. Even when she tries to save some money by doing her Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, she ends up blowing her budget in spectacular fashion.
Yet the film’s tone grows darker as tensions rise and David seems increasingly consumed by feelings of anger and depression. It’s unsurprising that he responded to his portrayal here with a defamation lawsuit. Others may be quicker to relish the ironies that abound in Greenfield’s vividly rendered and all too timely riches-to-rags saga.