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The Queen of Versailles - review

An unexpectedly sympathetic portrayal of the wife of a timeshare mogul.

The Queen of Versailles (PG)
dir: Lauren Greenfield

When the photographer and film-maker Lauren Greenfield began shooting a documentary in 2007 about the American timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife, Jacqueline, it had all the makings of several Grand Designs Christmas specials rolled into one, with a dash of The Osbournes to taste.

The Siegels were well into the construction in Florida of the largest private home in the US: a 90,000-square-foot mansion incorporating a roller rink, a theatre, a sushi bar, ten kitchens, 17 bathrooms, two tennis courts and a baseball field (just the one – no need to go overboard). The mansion’s designs are modelled on Versailles. What do you mean Marie Antoinette never went rollerblading? The point is we’ve all gone on holiday and brought back a little piece of the experience with us – a ship’s wheel to hang in the bathroom, some rugs from a souk to trip over in the living room for the next 12 months. It’s the same for the Siegels, except that for them “little” has no meaning until it’s applied to their choice of pets. You know the sort of pooch: bones like toothpicks, eyes like grapefruits, fits inside a matchbox without much of a fight.

Jackie was always going to be Greenfield’s main focus – hence the film’s title – and you can see why. At 43, she has amassed more than her rightful share of contradictions. She’s a former Mrs Florida with a computer engineering degree. She likes caviar from the tin but is not too proud to take the limo to the drive-thru McDonald’s.

An economically straitened childhood has fostered in her a tenacious spirit, or strengthened one that was already there. Just as she has clung to this through the swaddling layers of decadence, she has remained corporeal through the cosmetic tweaking and bronzing: her face is boxy and feline. David, 31 years her senior, with a stewed and doughy texture, wonders what she sees in him, as multi-millionaires always tend to. But Jackie is different. She has lots going on upstairs besides those 17 bathrooms.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that she remains likeable despite coming out with the sort of provocations that beg for the guillotine. In her half-built Versailles, she cascades up the giant staircase – anyone can cascade down a staircase but have you ever tried cascading up one? – and declares: “This is the staircase I’d use if I were visiting the children.” Jackie is mother to eight, including her orphaned niece. “I never would’ve had so many children if I couldn’t have a nanny,” she says. No one watching The Queen of Versailles would doubt she loves them. The real question is: does she know all their names?

Over time, the emphasis of Greenfield’s film changed beyond recognition. As it now stands, it’s a portrait of economic decline no less relevant for adopting the perspective of the 1 per cent. The Siegels, with their money built on the sub-prime neverland of luxury timeshare, proved as vulnerable to the financial crisis as anyone. The promise of heaven, two weeks a year in a Las Vegas skyscraper apartment, was flogged to families who had to gurn and grimace and shake out their wallets just to make the deposit. When they couldn’t pay, nor could the Siegels. Even the rich can be poor, sort of.

As the construction of their Versailles grinds to a halt, and staff members are laid off at work and at home, the bills start piling up along with the metaphors. It turns out that toy dogs lay real turds: the carpets are peppered with them. Jackie checks on the pet lizard in its tank and finds a deflated, desiccated skin. “The lizard is dead!” she sighs at a passing child. “I didn’t know we had a lizard,” he shoots back with a dramatist’s sense of irony and a stand-up’s timing. It’s a miracle that Greenfield’s crew kept hold of their equipment in between clasping their hands in gratitude for all the killer material they were getting.

Siegel is currently suing the film-makers: despite describing his own trajectory on screen as “riches-to-rags”, he has decided that the movie is defamatory. I think he should thank Greenfield for insisting throughout that her subjects are human and vulnerable, and for producing a downfall story that registers only a negligible score on the Schadenfreude scale.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special