Are you wondering how the 1 percent can wield such an oversize influence on American life? A major reason may simply be that we spend so much more than 1 percent of our time watching them. (And also loving, hating, and jealously idolizing them.) We watch them on tele-vision, in glitzy voyeuristic wealth-porn psychodramas like Bravo’s irresistible Real Housewives shows; in ads, where the lifestyles of the affluent float by as a shiny consumerist mirage; and in the movies, where one out of every five characters seems to be some sort of natty-suited hedge-fund magnate. This summer, those looking for the next big documentary?as?cultural touchstone will surely want to see Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a succulently entertaining movie that invites you to splash around in the dreams and follies of folks so rich they’re the 1 percent of the 1 percent. It’s like a champagne bath laced with arsenic.
The central figures are David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire couple in the Orlando area, who at the height of the housing bubble (the film was shot over three years, starting in 2007) are attempting to build the single largest home in America. It seems that the 26,000-square-foot house they already live in isn’t big enough. The palace they’re constructing — they have literally modeled it on Versailles, with the top three floors done as a knockoff of Las Vegas’ Paris hotel — will be 90,000 square feet, with 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, a roller rink, and a bedroom closet as big as a gymnasium. (”The children have their own wing,” says Jackie proudly.)
There’s no denying that part of the appeal of The Queen of Versailles is the way it invites us to stare, drop-jawed, at the Siegels’ tastelessly expensive bric-a-brac (gold-leaf statues, painted portraits of the family in royal robes) and to drink in their whole chatty ideology of more-ness. David, the founder of Westgate Resorts, is a man in his 70s who comes off like the ordinary-schmo version of Hugh Hefner, while Jackie, a former model 31 years his junior, is a perky shopaholic with a face of Botoxed blahness. The Siegels are easy to mock, yet the film’s relationship to them and their wealth is more complex than it looks. David says he’s building the ultimate house ”because I could,” and once we’ve seen its half-finished interiors, the grand arrogance of his dream tugs at us. We want to see that house get built too.
Then the economy collapses, sucking the Siegels down with it. It’s not just a matter of tough times: David’s company is selling subprime-mortgaged time-share vacations to people who can barely afford them. Once the downturn happens, his business and the Siegels’ dream house look like crumbling castles in the air. The Queen of Versailles turns unexpectedly darker; it becomes a parable of the despair bred by overreach. Yet if we chuckle at Jackie as she’s reduced to power-shopping at Walmart, the resonance of the film is that it uses the Siegels as incarnations of a consumer culture gone psychotic. They’re greedy, they’re naive, they’re audacious, they’re ridiculous. And they’re also us. A