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March 3, 2012 | 10:56 a.m. CST
The elaborate Parisian design of the Missouri Theatre was the perfect setting for Lauren Greenfield’s film, The Queen of Versailles. The film centers on the affluent David Siegel, owner of Westgate timeshares, and his wife, Jacqueline, as they attempt to build the largest single family home in America— a home modeled after the palace of Versailles in France.
On the surface, the film seems to be a perfect fit for the DIY Network or HGTV. Rich family buys house, rich family decorates house, rich family is happy. And in the first opening minutes, the film follows course. It begins with Jackie sitting on her husband’s lap. He is resting in an ornate high-back chair and looking regal and powerful. During the opening 30 minutes, Greenfield inoculates the audience with the extreme wealth of this family. Already living in a house with dozens of servants, maids and nannies, the Siegels want more, and their craving for materials becomes bewildering and leaves the audience laughing at times or simply shaking their heads. The film sets up familiar stereotypes such as the trophy wife, the hard-working (older) husband and the rebellious children. Greenfield shows a world entirely different from the norm, and the audience is left wondering why we should care about watching the rich get richer.Related Articles
Then, a specific moment occurs. It’s a moment that every documentary needs and strives to portray: conflict. For the Siegels, who had the world at their fingertips, conflict comes through the guise of economic collapse. Banks begin seizing assets and recalling loans, which leaves David with no money to continue running his company. The familiar drama unfolds, complete with massive downsizing and pay cuts, and for the Siegels, the fate of Versailles hangs in the balance. The film takes a distinctive departure, and David describes himself as going “from riches to rags.” Although pretty expensive rags in comparison.
The film also delves deep into the family structure of the Siegels with interviews from Jackie, David, their children, wait staff, employees and hometown friends. With such in-depth reporting, what were once otherworldly figures seem to become close friends. For every moment of gross wealth, there is a moment of human tenderness, and the audience is pulled further and further into the story.
“I’ve always been interested in the correlation between the American dream and home ownership,” Greenfield says when describing what originally drew her to the story. Like any true documentary director, Greenfield lets her subjects’ lives lead the narrative.
The film doesn’t pioneer any new visual boundaries in documentary filmmaking, but Greenfield uses traditional methods with a masterful touch. The framing of each scene is well balanced and open (although a 90-thousand square-foot house tends to have space in abundance).
Versailles becomes a symbol with varied meaning, but it’s much more than just a house. For Greenfield, it’s an external representation of America’s tendency to “overreach.” For David, it is his company or the thousands of lost jobs for which he feels personally responsible. For Jackie, it is discovering the importance of family and loving someone for richer or poorer. It’s the journey of self-realization for both the Siegels and the audience that is why this film is worth watching.