Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Premise: A documentary about the family of David and Jacqueline Siegel, billionaires who made their money in timeshare resorts. Filmed over the course of several years, the picture documents the family’s struggles following the 2008 economic downturn.
What Works: On the outset, The Queen of Versailles looks as though it might be a feature length version of The Real Housewives reality TV show,
but this is an altogether different take on the lives of the wealthy.
Where that television series is a Jerry Springer-esque freak show with
designer clothes, The Queen of Versailles is a profile of a business and a family struggling through a difficult time. Shot over the course of several years, The Queen of Versailles
begins before the 2008 housing and banking collapse, a time in which
the Siegel family was extremely wealthy and their business, Westgate
Resorts, was among the most successful timeshare companies in the
world. The title of The Queen of Versailles refers to the home
that the Siegels were building for themselves, a replica of the palace
in Versailles, France. Said to be the largest private home in the
United States, the construction of the new palace comes to a halt when
the economy craters and the Siegels struggle to keep their business,
their finances, and their family afloat. The picture includes a
combination of direct interviews and cinema verite
filmmaking, and the documentarians capture the humanity of this family.
They aren’t entirely sympathetic; at times the film recalls the most
incorrigible moments of Sex and the City
in which privileged people are appalled by the realities of everyday
life. But the portrayal of the Siegel family is also very well rounded,
as it splits its time between the domestic life of Jacqueline Siegel
and her kids and the business dealings of David Siegel and Westgate
Resorts. It’s when those two elements come together that the filmmakers
find their best moments. Despite her ignorance about the realities of
their financial situation, Jacqueline Siegel comes off as a decent,
well intentioned mother and her children are clearly impacted by the
marital tensions brought about by their financial struggles. Due to
some skillful editing, the Siegel family is given an arc over the
course of this documentary as they are humbled by their experiences and
reveal themselves to the camera. But The Queen of Versailles
is not just about the rich. This film is also a profile of Westgate
Resorts, including those who work for the Siegels, and the film manages
to be a microcosm of America’s economic system.
What Doesn’t: The Queen of Versailles is yet another entry in the trend of recession cinema that frames economic hardship in terms of its impact on the wealthiest Americans. This film distinguishes itself because of its compassionate regard for everyone involved and the way it demonstrates how the struggles of wealthy business owners impact others, especially those in their employment. However, The Queen of Versailles is another reminder of the lack of focus by filmmakers on the plight of the less fortunate. As a portrait of the Siegel family and their financial struggles, The Queen of Versailles is somewhat incomplete. Since the documentary wrapped filming, Westgate Resorts has recovered and stabilized and the Siegel family has resumed the construction of their home. In response to the film’s unflattering portrayal of Westgate Resorts’ business struggles, David Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers of The Queen of Versailles although that lawsuit has recently been dismissed.
DVD extras: Deleted scenes, trailer.
Bottom Line: The Queen of Versailles is a very interesting profile of a family and it manages to be a broader illustration of opulent overreach. Although the saga of the Siegel family is somewhat incomplete, what the film does capture is extraordinary enough to make this one of the most notable pictures of recession cinema.
Episode: #425 (February 3, 2013)