Jackie Siegel, The Queen of Versailles

Photographer Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles starts out as the story of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel and the building of their new Orlando mansion which was modeled after the royal palace outside Paris and, upon completion, would be the largest private residence in the United States. When asked in the film why he’s building such a large home, David responds “Because I can.”

At first it seems like Versailles is going to be a gaudy freak show of reality TV excess that only proves that money can’t buy taste. At times it is exactly that. Either you drool at the enormous personal wealth on display or you laugh into your hat as it’s squandered on such ugliness. All the while though, Greenfield is quietly probing and observing and what finally emerges is a frank, warts and all look at a couple of people who represent the American Dream in its most exaggerated and hideous form. When the housing market crashes part way into filming and the very economic system that made Mr. Siegel a rich man turns against him seemingly overnight, The Queen of Versailles becomes an exposé not of rich people, but of the values underpinning our economic system and what happens when that system is played out to its logical conclusion.

What Greenfield shows us, both before and after the 2008 crash, is that the Siegels aren’t terrible people. Jackie is a loving mother and wife who came from the lower middle class. Her biggest sins, if you can even call them that, are bad taste and a certain naivety. The materialism that grips her isn’t much different than that shared by a lot of people I know including myself. It’s only more excessive because of the resources at her disposal. For his part, David is actually very hard working and dedicated. He also started with nothing and built his time-share condo business from the ground up. He broke no laws in the pursuit of his fortune.

While Greenfield doesn’t pass judgment on her subjects, neither does she put them on a pedestal. The fact is, Siegel got rich by selling a piece of the American Dream to people who couldn’t really afford it in order that they might feel as though they could.

On the other hand, these weren’t innocent victims either. They were willing buyers. No one forced them to spend beyond their means. They were simply doing what every American is led to believe is expected of them, or trying to.

In the end, The Queen of Versailles casually suggests that it’s really our value system that is broken. The amount of stuff you own should not be a measure of your worth as a person, but it is. The strength of Greenfield’s observational, non-judgmental style is that this message is neither lost in the personalities nor is it overstated. You can choose to be entertained by the excesses on screen or horrified by them, but either way it’s not the Siegels who are on trial. In fact, Greenfield brings an innate curiosity to her subjects and even a generosity. That the Siegels are ultimately shown to be human beings only makes the film stronger.

It would’ve been all too easy to make a 99% vs. 1% screed about economic injustice, but The Queen of Versailles is not that film. It’s a much better one. Instead of looking for a villain, it quietly asks everyone – rich, poor or in the middle – to look at themselves and to think about the things that are really important.

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated