Lauren Greenfield, The Queen of Versailles, 2012, digital video, 100 minutes and the Versailles Property, 2014
The Queen of Versailles is a character-driven documentary about a billionaire family and their financial challenges in the wake of the economic crisis. With epic proportions of Shakespearean tragedy, the film follows two unique characters, whose rags-to-riches success stories reveal the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream. The film begins with the family triumphantly constructing the largest privately-owned house in America, a 90,000 sq. ft. palace. Over the next two years, their sprawling empire, fueled by the real estate bubble and cheap money, falters due to the economic crisis. Major changes in lifestyle and character ensue within the cross-cultural household of family members and domestic staff.
David Siegel is the wealthy owner of Westgate Resorts, a timeshare company in Florida. His wife Jackie Siegel, thirty years his junior, is a former Miss Florida contestant with a computer science degree. They begin construction on the Versailles house, a mansion modeled on the Palace of Versailles. Located on the outskirts of Orlando, it would be the largest single-family detached home in the United States if completed.
However, Siegel’s company is badly affected by the Great Recession in 2008 and his family struggle to cope with their reduced income. Construction on the new house is halted, most of their servants are laid off and their pets are neglected. David retreats into his office, determined to save his property venture in Las Vegas. Jackie struggles to rein in her compulsive shopping habits. The children and their nanny are also interviewed. The film ends with none of their issues resolved.
The New York Times’ A. O. Scott called the film “A gaudy guilty pleasure that is also a piece of trenchant social criticism,” and said, “the movie starts out in the mode of reality television, resembling the pilot for a new “Real Housewives” franchise or a reboot of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Before long, though, it takes on the coloration of a Theodore Dreiser novel — not quite an American tragedy but a sprawling, richly detailed study of ambition, desire and the wild swings of fortune that are included in the price of the capitalist ticket.”
The Economist called it “an uncomfortably intimate glimpse of a couple’s struggle with a harsh new reality,” concluding that “the film’s great achievement is that it invites both compassion and Schadenfreude. What could have been merely a silly send-up manages to be a meditation on marriage and a metaphor for the fragility of fortunes, big and small.”
The documentary won the U.S. Directing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize from the Brisbane International Film Festival, and a Best Director Award from the RiverRun Film Festival. The Queen of Versailles was also nominated for Best Documentary Film, 2012, by the International Documentary Association (IDA).
Lauren Greenfield graduated from Harvard in 1987 and started her career as an intern for the National Geographic Magazine. She lectures on her photography, youth culture, popular culture, and body image at museums and universities around the world.