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Tragic Kingdom

by Shawn Stone on October 25, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

 

God only knows what documentary Lauren Greenfield thought she would be making when she and her associates embedded themselves in the lives of billionaire time-share king David Siegel, his third wife Jacqueline Siegel and their half-dozen or so children. It was probably to be a study of American success and excess, as the baron of vacations was in the process of ensconcing his fabulously wealth clan into what was going to be the most expensive home in the United States. A home that—cue the chorus, chanting rhymed warnings of the gods’ displeasure—was modeled after Versailles.

Greenfield started shooting before the bubble burst in 2008, however, and that changed everything. By 2010, she was telling a very different tale. The Siegels were slowly going broke. David’s empire was in tatters, and his most treasured development, a Las Vegas tower with a sign big enough, and bright enough, to annoy Donald Trump, was about to be taken away from him by the very banks who supplied the cheap money and unlimited credit that made his rise possible.

His and her majesties, the Siegels, in THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

If this sounds like the stuff of realty television, it is. But there is sympathy in Greenfield’s treatment of these often awful people who have no idea how awful they are. On the one hand, there are the appalling financial manipulations that made the Siegel fortune possible (and, arguably, helped bankrupt American finance and culture); on the other, there are the Siegels themselves, who possess a level of innocence about themselves that would be more touching if they weren’t so damn funny.

The decline is comical. As their large household staff is reduced from dozens to a few, dog shit collects on the floor and exotic pets flounder. Clutter and waste accumulates in garish living spaces.

The title refers to “the queen,” and it’s Jackie Siegel who dominates the film. She’s extravagant, but knows the value of nothing. A Southern Tier native, she’s a testament to the idea that you can take the woman out of the Binghamton, but you can’t take Binghamton out of the woman. She’s educated, having earned a degree in engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, but has no understanding of the value of education.

Jackie’s shallowness might lead the viewer to think that, under pressure, she would crumble. But she doesn’t. Her husband’s path, seen from a distance, is more intriguing-and frightening.

The film project ended before the Siegel drama finished, but that doesn’t mean the film is without lessons—or providing a lot of guilty fun.