Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles (2012) takes an alternative perspective on the recent economic crisis to befall America by examining the Siegel family – a wealthy ‘new money’ household who made their fortune selling time shares before almost losing it all during the financial downturn of 2008. Originally planned as a documentary following the construction of the Siegel’s 90,000 square-foot mansion (taking the Palace of Versailles as its inspiration), The Queen of Versailles took a completely different route when the billion pound empire of patriarch David Siegel faced ruin after the 2008 economic collapse.
Director Greenfield was lucky enough to capture these two varying states of the Siegel family, observing their lavish and care-free lifestyle before becoming witness to their difficulty adapting to a more frugal existence. The Queen of Versailles manages to capture the obnoxious greed and exhibitionism of the Siegel family perfectly – during the film’s opening act, we’re privy to a family that has completely lost themselves in a world of material wealth.
It’s this examination of their former wealth which is by far the film’s strongest asset, presenting us with a hilarious ‘through the keyhole’ perspective of the Siegel’s ridiculous assimilation of the upper-classes. Whether it be the hideously try-hard family portraits depicting the Siegels as 17th century French aristocracy, their ill-fitting collection of faux antiques or the mere fact most of these interviews involving David Siegel occur whilst he sits upon a golden throne, it’s near impossible not to become transfixed with the hilarious lifestyle of this ludicrous family. Yet it’s Janice Siegel, a former Miss Florida and faded model who hangs off her sugar-daddy husband’s arm, is easily the star of the show.
Janice’s naive innocence and overriding optimism make her an incredibly likeable (if not hilariously obnoxious) leading lady. We witness the family’s fall from grace from her oblivious, yet heartfelt perspective which both infuriates and entertains in equal measure. Sadly, The Queen of Versailles’ pace starts to lag towards the end, with Greenwood attempting to evoke a misguided sense of sympathy from the audience towards this spoilt family.
David Siegel’s stubborn pride and his family’s inability to grasp their new financial status makes it hard to care about their plight, with the only real emotional response resulting from the tragic stories of the family’s hired help who find themselves facing unemployment – a touching side-story that isn’t made the most of. A genuinely hilarious documentary that unfortunately succumbs to a reality TV filmmaking approach, The Queen of Versailles may be lacking in bite but remains a thoroughly enjoyable experience.