Everything about The Queen of Versailles, a documentary both sharply observant and deliciously funny, is jumbo-sized – the riches, the rags, his ego, her breasts, their steroidal pursuit of happiness. Meet the Siegels, the American family writ absurdly large, and see them grow into a symbol of the Republic for which they stand – its rise and decline in the age of collapsed markets and withered dreams.
Yet, more than a social morality tale, this is a character study, with the title well chosen. The Queen commands our attention throughout, becoming almost a figurehead of the nation’s personality, often ridiculous but always compelling, shallow and shrewd and tough and generous and farcical and fun.
Early on, the Siegels take centre-stage at the zenith of their wealth. David is a self-made billionaire in his early 70s; Jackie is his trophy wife, a pneumatic blonde three decades younger. The pair have a passel of kids, a pack of dogs, a score or more of Filipino servants, and a “starter mansion” that, with a mere 17 bathrooms, just won’t do. Their under-construction upgrade, a long 2-iron from Tiger Woods’ abode, is a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity relentlessly designed in the grand style of the nouveau riche – that signature blend of faux French and real Vegas. We laugh at the exorbitance, at least until David, seated on a gilded throne, reminds us of what else money can buy in the democratic state of Florida: “I got George Bush elected. It may not necessarily have been legal.” The boast, one fears, may not necessarily be empty.
To this point, director Lauren Greenfield keeps the tour guided and precise. She establishes the humble beginnings of both spouses. She checks in on the children’s pampered pleasures, and details the source of David’s billions in the time-share condo biz – essentially, he hard-sells a version of his own opulent lifestyle to people who can’t afford it. Enter the credit crisis, the fall in the fall of 2008, when everything “came to a screeching halt.”
Like the cheap cash it depends upon, his company quickly dries up – overnight, thousands are laid off and entire offices stand empty. On the domestic front, that half-built monstrosity is put on the market, prompting a buffed real estate agent to face the camera and flaunt her French: “It could be your very own Ver-size.”
Occasionally, Greenfield peeks in at the subsequent plight of the common folk – the Filipino nanny separated from her own children and now from a paycheque; Jackie’s high school friend who’s about to lose her modest house; the chauffeur, in similarly dire straits.
Meanwhile, back at their starter mansion but shorn of its staff, the Siegels are living like trash in a 17-bathroom trailer. Dog poop litters the zebra-stripe carpets, pet lizards are dying of neglect, the stretch limo is pulling up at McDonald’s before heading off to Walmart.
Inside his paper-strewn study, a suddenly aged and soured David works the phones, ignores his children, grumbles about the electric bill and, to the question “Do you get strength from your marriage?” snaps back with cantankerous candour, “No, it’s kind of like having another child.”
He’s right and he’s dead wrong. No doubt, with her Botoxed face and siliconed boobs and willed ignorance, Queen Jackie is a paragon of infantilized America. Yet, embracing adversity with a smile, she has a generous spirit too, a playful sense of humour, a capacity for love, and an untapped intelligence wedded to a fighter’s knack for rolling with the punches: “I’ve been up and down my whole life.” A child, yes, but a weathered and near-wise child, still singing in the rain.
At times, like those guests in Gatsby’s mansion, the doc lingers a little too long, threatening to overstay its welcome. Wonderfully, though, the ending offers a more telling nod to Fitzgerald. At the Siegel’s crumbling mansion, in the darkness beyond its waterside dock, a green light beckons anew. It shines bright amid the black sky where, from deep in the transplanted heart of modern America, mini-bombs are bursting in air – Disneyland, that kiddies’ paradise, is putting on its nightly show.