As the stretch limo pulls into a Central Florida McDonald's drive-thru, you might ask yourself what is wrong with this picture. It's one of many incongruous, stranger-than-fiction moments captured by director Lauren Greenfield in The Queen of Versailles, an eye-opening portrait of fading wealth that begins like a real-life variation on a Christopher Guest comedy and then morphs into a somber study of a marriage in foreclosure. It's one hell of a tonal shift, executed with a devilish sense of humor and a stubborn refusal to look away.
“Larger than life” doesn't begin to do justice to Jacqueline and David Siegel. The film's title subject (née Solomon), with her cartoonishly oversized breasts and outrageous fashion faux pas (leopard print!), is living her own Cinderella story, only Prince Charming is 31 years her senior. (And his man-boobs are actually real.) The 43-year-old mother of seven, a small town girl from New York State, plays tour guide inside her sprawling residence, and Greenfield's cameras leave no nouveau riche possession offscreen: The gaudy Louis XIV furniture, the tacky self-portraits on the walls, and the cute toy pooches with zero potty training elicit the expected derisive giggles. (A teenage daughter from one of David's previous marriages rounds out the clan.)
David, 74, founded Westgate Resorts and turned it into the world's biggest timeshare company. At the beginning of The Queen of Versailles, the real estate mogul is enjoying the success of his new Vegas high-rise, the profits of which will help pay for the sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion he's building for himself. Because Jackie and the kids need ten kitchens, a movie auditorium with stadium seating, a roller rink and a stage where they can put on shows Sound of Music-style. It would have become the largest single-family residence ever built.
Meanwhile, back in Vegas, David's oldest son/business partner Richard oversees his team of sellers. He's the corporate number cruncher as motivational speaker, and his number one goal is getting his middle-class customers to sign on the dotted line so they can start experiencing the illusion of wealth. “Everyone wants to vacation like a Rockefeller,” David boasts.
Then September of 2008 came and Wall Street took a tumble, thus bursting the real estate bubble and sending American banks clamoring for a return on their investments. The future of the Vegas building, as well as the completion of the Siegels' own Xanadu, becomes one costly question mark. For David, the crisis consumes nearly every waking moment, and the strain on his marriage begins to show. As their wait staff dwindles, the dogs turn the floors into their personal toilet. (Couldn't they afford a trainer?!) One is invigorated by Jacqueline's can-do optimism...and flabbergasted by her inability to adapt to her family's impending lifestyle change. (“What's my driver's name?” she asks at an airport rental car counter.) David becomes temperamental, understandably upset at Jacqueline for continuing to spend a fortune, even as the former beauty queen compromises by doing her Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart. Oh, the humanity! Watching this rude awakening unfold is akin to witnessing a train wreck in slow motion. It's impossible to avert your gaze.
David is reportedly suing Greenfield and her executive producer for misrepresenting his company's financial troubles in order to fit the movie's riches-to-rags narrative arc, but the lawsuit obscures the film's many achievements. The Queen of Versailles, which won a directing award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, has been picked up by Bravo, where it is destined to play on a loop in between reality show reruns. Greenfield's film might look like a Desperate Housewives of Orlando pilot, but the filmmaker has bigger fish to fry. She captures the nation's economic zeitgeist in a way that's accessible and painfully intimate. The summer's funniest documentary is also the saddest. It's a sobering cautionary tale with a doozy of a moral: Learn how to live within your means, or you'll wind up covered in dogshit.
The Queen of Versailles is now showing at O Cinema, Regal Cinemas South Beach and AMC Sunset Place.