Cinema's most cogent and scathing explanation of the 2008 financial collapse comes from Charles Ferguson's documentary Inside Job, a dense, passionate indictment of economic mismanagement. The most entertaining, character-driven film about America's slumping fortunes, however, turns out to be Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, a cautionary tale about living large.
Greenfield, a photographer, introduces us to David and Jackie Siegel at the height of their success. He's the 74-year-old owner of Westgate Resorts, the world's biggest timeshare corporation. She's his latest wife, a 43-year-old former Miss Florida with a chest worthy of a Russ Meyer film and a weakness for children and cute animals. The film begins with the Siegels living in a Florida mansion with eight kids, countless dogs, and platoons of servants, but they're building an even grander abode: Versailles, a Louis XIV-inspired palace that, on completion, will be the biggest private residence in the U.S. under one roof. When Jackie shows a friend the building site, she makes remarks like, "This is the staircase I would use if I was visiting the children."
The Queen of Versailles implicitly equates the timeshare business to the subprime mortgages that precipitated the crash as we see Westgate salesmen pressure customers to buy vacation properties they may not be able to afford. Siegel's business relies on easy credit and access to cheap money, so when the mortgage crisis hits and banks grow reluctant to lend, Westgate suffers a severe financial constriction. Throughout the film, banks prove more interested in foreclosing on properties than cash-strapped customers, whether they own small one-family houses or giant Las Vegas resorts.
Soon Siegel must lay off thousands of Westgate employees and slash his household staff from 14 to four. Before long, dog poop, stray toys, and dirty clothes litter the halls of the once-luxurious home. Jackie scolds the children for letting a pet lizard die in its terrarium. As metaphors for materialism gone wild, the Siegel household is downright hilarious. When Jackie takes the kids to her hometown, they have to fly coach — coach! At the airport rent-a-car counter she asks, "What's my driver's name?" and the clerk gapes at her.
Like one of the "Real Housewives" reality shows, The Queen of Versailles gazes with fascination at the lifestyles of the nouveau riche, and we roll our eyes at hilariously terrible paintings of the Siegels as European royalty. I had the impression that, as the film progresses, Jackie reveals more and more cleavage as if to show off one set of assets when others are in short supply.
Versailles serves an all-you-can-eat dish of schadenfreude when the family starts to economize, but despite being reckless consumers, the Siegels don't fit the stereotype of the 1 percent as hateful avatars of U.S. greed. David takes pride in his achievement from humble beginnings without being a Trump-style braggart. Jackie loves shopping and caviar too much, but unlike a clichéd gold digger, she dotes on her husband and their family.
Since the film's completion, Siegel has filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers for offering misleading information about Westgate Resorts' financial straits. The film's most deeply emotional elements involve the family tensions. Jackie says that "The stress makes us stronger," but when an interviewer later asks David if he takes strength from their marriage, he answers flatly "No." Near the end he's practically barricaded in a home office, surrounded with paperwork and grousing at the family for leaving too many lights on. The Siegels experience both successes and losses on a scale most Americans can never dream of, but their difficulties and ultimate doggedness at facing hard times proves surprisingly common.