Access to the unguarded is a documentarian’s delight. Access to unguarded people behaving atrociously is truly the Holy Grail. That’s what filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield got when she convinced David and Jackie Siegel, whom she met in 2007, to let her follow them on their odyssey to build the largest home in America, a 90,000-square-foot, modern-day palace in Orlando they called Versailles. Then came the crash and Versailles stands unfinished and unoccupied. Like Icarus, the Siegels flew too close to the sun—or rather Greenfield’s camera—and now serve as singed cautionary tales. Watching The Queen of Versailles caused my schadenfreude cup to runneth over. Thanks to the Siegels, I may never need to gloat again. Thanks to Greenfield, I don’t want to.
The obvious descriptor for Versailles, with its planned 30 bathrooms, children’s wing (the Siegels have seven biological children and a niece who lives with them), full-sized baseball field, bowling alley, spa and Louis Quatorze furnishings, is opulent. But that’s not enough. What the Siegels have done is detonate a nuclear bomb of tasteless decadence; even the worst mansion-dwelling dictator in the world might be grossed out by the half-finished Versailles. It is as repellently pornographic as Jackie’s breast implants, silicone tsunamis that threaten to swamp her collarbones.
I’m sorry. I’m being nasty. But for better or worse—wait, definitely worse—this is a movie that prompts one to judge, or to be “judgey.” In the course of the film, there is no new construction on Versailles—it has no interior walls—and the Siegels must make do with their 26,000-square-foot home. The real focus is on David Siegel as he watches his empire crumble. He made paper millions off the time-share industry, through founding and running Westgate Resorts. (He’s suing Greenfield now, for defaming Westgate, so I expect to be served at any moment for defaming former Mrs. Florida Jackie Siegel’s surgical enhancements.) At the end of the film, the bank is threatening foreclosure on Versailles but the Siegels are still holding onto it, although only by the hairs of their chinny chin chins.
Very broadly, the Siegels serve as an allegory for what’s happened to America in the last four years: the subprime mortgage debacle, the ensuing recession, the hey-duh realization by the 99 percent that there is a 1 percent to be angry about. Does anyone still need that allegory, between the reality of their frozen wages—assuming one’s lucky enough to have a job—and their climbing grocery/fuel/healthcare bills? Nevertheless, I admire the neat structure of Greenfield’s film, the way she invites viewers to first be appalled at the Siegel’s decadence and then ushers us into the VIP room to watch them suffer in stunned freefall. (Freefall being a relative term here: the Siegel’s 19 person staff is down to four.) One of the remaining maids has to live in the children’s discarded playhouse. It’s the most tasteful structure in the movie.
Greenfield (who directed the anorexia/bulimia doc Thin) also foreshadows valiantly; in the beginning of the film there’s a scene of Jackie talking about putting all her trust in David. She later captures David, who is 30 years older than his wife, saying that no, he doesn’t get strength from his marriage and that she “is like having another child.” One of their daughters calls her mother a trophy wife in the way that implies she thinks that is a good thing. In short, the director gets them to hoist themselves on their own petard. (Or throne; in the opening minutes, the Siegels are actually sitting on one). Although truthfully, they seem like nice enough people, if you can see past their carelessness, vanity, self-aggrandizement and tendency to let their dogs poop on the floor. No family since the Friedmans of Capturing the Friedmans has made such an epic mistake in saying yes to a documentarian.
(MORE: TIME’s review of Capturing the Friedmans)
But while I felt intense sympathy for the staff, and for the Siegel’s children, who have much to overcome, I felt no sympathy for Jackie and David’s circumstances. Not one bit. The way the movie presents them, I believe we’re only meant to feel sorry for them being them. By another name, contempt.
I feel contempt for my contempt for these people. Whether that’s my problem or the film’s, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m leaning toward blaming Greenfield. She focuses on that dog feces like a murder scene investigator roping off the evidence, only her yellow tape would say CAUTION, HUMAN PIGS instead of CRIME SCENE. I believe life is too desperately short to waste on the desperate housewives or desperate Kardashians, but I’d be shocked if Jackie Siegel hadn’t caught a few of those shows, which are undeniably addictive for many, many viewers—train wrecks in stilettos. Like those reality “stars,” Jackie gives what can only be called “a performance” in Queen of Versailles. For example: A little scene that takes place as Jackie is en route, with kids in tow, to see her family in Binghamton, New York, where she grew up in a house with three bedrooms and one bathroom (“I would have to wait in line “), dreaming of fame and fortune. She went to college, got a job at IBM and says she gave it up to pursue modeling. She met David through a beauty pageant. At any rate, I don’t believe she’s stupid.
But there she is at the Hertz rental counter in Elmira, picking up a car to drive to Binghamton, telling the clerk—who could give two figs—about how weird it is to have to fly commercial. He’s not responding, the drama is missing, so then Jackie very deliberately asks for the name of her driver. She wants the audience, whoever it is, to think she’s so privileged as to expect a rental car comes with a driver. You grow up in a 3BR, 1Ba in Binghamton, you not only know that rental cars are things you drive yourself, you know that the majority of the first world knows this. She’s staging the scene. The steady wink wink of Queen of Versailles is wearing. I’d say Greenfield is exploiting a narcissist’s willingness to talk endlessly about herself, but I think it just as likely that Jackie is exploiting Greenfield’s willingness to listen. And to keep that wonderful mechanical eye focused on her.
PHOTOS: Some of Lauren Greenfield’s photography, from her 2002 book