The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

When The Queen of Versailles was in its earlier stages, Lauren Greenfield had no way of knowing that what she probably intended as a commentary on excess would become a case of simultaneous compassion and schaudenfraude of a rich family who loses it all. When we first meet the Siegal’s, we judge them for building what will become the most expensive single-family home in America to go along with the house they already have. For the Siegal’s, 17 bathrooms is not enough. They need 30, and they need two tennis courts, a bowling alley, a basketball court, a skating rink, and a closet the size of a large living room to go with it. The maids that keep it running? They can have the dollhouse.

How can they afford this? David Siegal founded Westgate Resorts, the largest, most successful timeshare company in the world. Then he found an engineer-turned-trophy-wife and had seven kids with her. He even brags about being the reason George W. Bush was elected. They have more money than they know what to do with. So they build that dream house, modeled after Louis XIV’s palace, and they take out a mortgage so they can invest more money into the company and build a 54 story complex in Vegas. We cannot believe their excess and pomposity. David even convinces his employees that they are doing work just as important as doctors, firefighters, and policemen.

But then September 2008 comes along, and the stock market crashes. We cannot help but smile, and we laugh when Mrs. Jackie Siegal rents a car and asks for the name of the driver as if it comes with one and when they fly commercial, and we are disgusted that they cutback in important places instead of selling their antiques and by how spoiled the children, who might “have to make their own money now,” are.

But something funny happens. For all their poor judgment, the family seems to be in a genuine struggle. They are “forced” to lay off their maids (were there alternatives? Probably, but that’s not what Greenfield is concerned with) and cannot keep the house clean or the pets fed. David is honestly disappointed that he had to lay off thousands to keep his company afloat. We realize that Jackie truly loves David, has no qualms about downsizing if that’s what it takes, so long as she gets to stay with him. A cynical amusement at their trouble is mixed with genuine compassion, thanks largely to Jackie, who comes off as honest, friendly, and intelligent, even if she struggles to live modestly and is even more out of touch with reality than her single-minded husband.

The family continues to make questionable decisions, but Greenfield’s smartest directorial decision is in never becoming political. Both the banks and David are blamed, but neither excessively. We get the feeling that the rich are not all bad, even if the way the rich go broke is so much different from the way the rest of us do. Instead, The Queen of Versailles becomes a poignant examination of the American Dream, lavishes, unattainability and all. While the Siegals find themselves struggling to downsize Jackie still sends money to an old friend to prevent a home closure. The money is enough, but the bank doesn’t care; as a character from another summer movie remarks, “the rich even go broke different than the rest of us.” One of the Siegal’s made finds that she may never build the house or support her family back in the Philippines in the way that she always promised. Certainly, we feel worse for the maid and the friend than the Siegals, but David, pompous as he is, worked for his fortune, and Jackie dispels gold digger suspicions.

Are we supposed to sympathize or derive a sick sense of pleasure? When they throw a big Christmas party they claim to not afford, and go on shopping sprees, it’s hard not to judge. But again, The Queen of Versailles never gets to political, and that is why it’s so effective. Instead, we find ourselves wondering, as many before us have, what happens to a dream deferred? It turns out it depends on how close you were to that dream in the first place. The Queen is an intensely thought-provoking watch. Even if its preference for laughs over insight won’t make you change your mind about anything, it’s still a unique look at both the American Dream and the financial crisis.

Grade: B

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