Review of The Queen of Versailles

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A documentary that follows a billionaire couple as they begin construction on a mansion inspired by Versailles. During the next two years, their empire, fueled by the real estate bubble and cheap money, falters due to the economic crisis.
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Movie Review: "The Queen of Versailles"

-- Rating: PG (language, thematic elements)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2012
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Genre: Documentary

At the beginning of "The Queen of Versailles," Jackie Siegel is portrayed as a rich, entitled woman who seemingly has no idea about the real world. Her husband David is portrayed as a jovial man who is happy with his trophy wife Jackie, 30 years his junior. Together, they have eight children and lead a lavish billionaire lifestyle. By the end of the film, both Jackie and David will have become very different people as they deal with big changes in their lifestyle.

The changes are brought about by the stock market crash of 2008. David's business was in timeshares that he sold to many as part of the American Dream. Many people bought into David's marketing and took out mortgages and loans for condos and timeshares they could not really afford. This made David a billionaire who wanted a wife and family to share his wealth with.

This is where Jackie comes in. Jackie was born and raised in upstate New York to a working class family. She endured changing bedpans at a nursing home and getting her behind pinched by customers as a cocktail waitress. It is hard to believe that she came from such humble beginnings once you see how she lives in 2007, a year before the economic collapse would take away her husband's wealth.

Right before the crash, the couple began construction on a monstrous 90,000-square-foot house near Orlando. It was to be the largest private residence in the entire United States, a monument of sorts to the opulence that the easy loans and cheap money that the housing bubbles provided right before it burst.

Most rich people are portrayed as being financially competent. At the very least, they hire competent financial accountants to audit their assets. As it turns out, the Siegels are not very financially competent at all. David intertwined his personal and business finances to the point that when customers began defaulting on their loans, the banks began trying to collect from him. This caused his personal wealth to collapse almost overnight.

Construction on their house, which they nicknamed Versailles, came to a halt, so did their opulent lifestyle. Gone were the days of having multiple nannies to take care of the eight kids. They could no longer afford the huge cleaning staff they had to clean up after them. Instead, Jackie began going from room to room picking up dog droppings. When she wanted to take the kids home to New York to see her parents, they flew commercial for the first time because they didn't have access to a private jet anymore.

It is at this point in the film that Jackie goes from being an airhead with no concept of reality to a woman fighting to keep her family together as they adjust to their new life. David morphs from a happy man to a bitter recluse, locking himself up in a room to plot a comeback that will likely happen. All of a sudden, Jackie goes from being unsympathetic to being the heart of the film. The transformation is completely believable under the circumstances. It was documented well by director Lauren Greenfield, who is now being sued by David Siegel for defamation.

It is possible that Greenfield edited the film to make the Siegels look bad. This is a known tactic of reality show editors. However, this is a documentary, and Greenfield was given an unprecedented look at the life of the family, who mostly comes across as sympathetic. By the end of the film, the only one who doesn't look good is David, who lets his pride and ego get in the way of selling a Las Vegas property that could help his family regain some of their lost wealth.

"The Queen of Versailles" feels timely, even though it was released four years after the housing bubble bursts. The economy is still recovering, and the housing market is still shaky. Lots of houses that were once homes still sit empty, just like Versailles. There are families struggling just to keep their heads above the water, just like the Siegels. Surely, it is hard for most to sympathize with the Siegels and their former lifestyle, but Greenfield makes it equally hard not to sympathize with them by the end. At the very least, the audience will sympathize with Jackie, who has essentially become a single mother trying to raise eight kids with little or no help from her preoccupied husband. This is a universal theme that hits families of all financial statuses.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars