At first glance, The Queen of Versailles, this year’s breakout Sundance documentary, would seem to offer little more than a choice opportunity for schadenfreude.
Director Lauren Greenfield started filming billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel—the former made his fortune in the time-share biz as owner of Westgate Resorts, whose properties include PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas—as they began constructing an obscene super-mansion in Florida, based partly on France’s Palace of Versailles and partly on Paris Las Vegas. Then the economy goes south. The unfinished property goes on the market, and poor Jackie gets reduced to inquiring about the name of her chauffeur at the rental-car outlet.
To some extent, it feels as if Greenfield throws her subjects under the bus to serve her emerging thesis. That there’s often a staggering lack of self-awareness in the Siegel household is undeniable, but the degree to which Jackie and David metamorphose from nouveau riche cartoons to recognizable human beings as their fortunes fall suggests a lot of early deck-stacking via selective editing.
Still, the film’s singular and somewhat bracing achievement involves our growing recognition that we’re looking at the U.S. economy writ large. Watching billionaires struggle to make ends meet after their source of imaginary money disappears simply magnifies the average American’s financial self-delusion to unimaginable proportions, thereby allowing us to perceive that we’re not blameless. At the very least, The Queen of Versailles is a far more trenchant and illuminating view of the lending crisis than was a self-righteous screed like Inside Job.