Let Them Eat Cake

Though I'm notoriously picky when it comes to documentaries, Lauren Greenfield's 2012 film, The Queen of Versailles, was on my to-watch list from the first moment I heard about it. And that was before it starting racking up critical praise left and right. The reason it appealed to me so strongly is that it's really two movies in one. Its ostensible original premise was about the building of the largest single-family house in America. The owner, David Siegel, is a time-share real estate magnate, and he and his trophy wife Jackie began construction on a gigantic, garish house inspired by the titular palace. Let's just say there was a lot of gold leaf flying around the place.

If the movie had stuck to that story, it wouldn't have appealed to me as much. Sure, there's an opportunity for some disgust and schadenfreude in watching rich people waste money and resources, but it wouldn't have struck me as appreciably different from an episode of one of those tiresome Real Housewives of... shows that I despise. What makes this movie intruiging is what happens to these grandiose construction plans when the housing bubble bursts, and the Great Recession comes knocking at the door. Suddenly, what began as an examination of an obscenely wealthy family's quest to build a gleaming palace becomes an unexpected peek into the lives of a shell-shocked couple desperately scrambling to keep the walls of their financial empire from crumbling.

This film could have easily become an eat-the-rich hit piece, but though there are hilarious scenes demonstrating the family's inability to readjust to a minutely lessened standard of living (I physically cringed in embarrassment when Jackie asks the Hertz rental agent who her driver is going to be), it's thankfully more even-handed. None of us would be thrilled about a big financial step down, and Greenfield succeeds in making the financial woes of people who never fell below multimillionaire status almost relatable. That fair treatment didn't stop David Siegel from suing Greenfield for defamation after the movie was completed. Though I believe the case is still in arbitration, he's not likely to win.

That's the thing. You don't want to root for a douchey ultra-rich guy who brags about personally getting George W. Bush elected and his plasticized, ex-beauty queen wife. Interviews with their chauffeur and nanny are powerful, contrasting reminders that the Siegels are obviously still doing just fine. But in the big picture, the economic struggles that plague Americans plague ALL Americans, and by happenstance, this fascinating movie was in a position to capture the perfect snapshot of this moment in history.

The Queen of Versailles: B+


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