This summer, anyone looking for the next big documentary-as-cultural touchstone will want to see “The Queen of Versailles.” It’s a terrifically fun movie that invites the viewer to splash around in the dreams and follies of folks so rich they're the one percent of the one percent.
The central figures, David and Jackie Siegel, are a billionaire couple in the Orlando area who at the height of the housing bubble are trying to build the single largest home in America. The palace they're constructing, literally modeled after Versailles, will be 90,000 square feet with 10 kitchens and a bedroom closet as big as a gymnasium.
Part of the appeal of “The Queen of Versailles” is the way it invites viewers to stare, drop-jawed, at the Siegels' tastelessly expensive bric-a-brac and to drink in their whole chatty ideology of more-ness. David, the founder of Westgate Resorts, comes off like the ordinary-schmo version of Hugh Hefner, while Jackie, a former model and 31 years his junior, is a perky shopaholic with a face of Botoxed blah-ness. The Siegels are easy to mock yet the film's relationship to them and their wealth is more complex than it looks. The grand arrogance of their dream starts to tug at the audience, along with a want to see that house get built.
Then the economy collapses, sucking the Siegels down with it. David's company is selling subprime-mortgaged time-share vacations to people who can barely afford them and 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 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.