Director: Lauren Greenfield
Cast: Virginia Nebab and David Siegel
Running Time: 100 mins
Release: September 7th
Greed, hubris and honking big metaphors inform The Queen of Versailles, an entertaining and timely new documentary that follows a super-rich couple (Virginia Nebab and David Siegel) as they plan to build the biggest residential house in America. Half-finished when we first see it, the home would be a recreation of Louis XVI’s Versailles dwelling (all period-appropriate French furniture and stained windows), and would additionally have two tennis courts, an ice rink, a bowling alley and a separate wing for the children. However the 2008 market crash has a direct effect on Siegel’s multibillion-dollar real estate business, and their vast second home lies incomplete like the giant, hulking symbol it is.
This is a thought-provoking and blackly funny stuff, with plenty to say about the American dream. Nobody is portrayed in a simplistic or overtly negative way—not Virginia, the financially reckless Siegel, their army of children or their dwindling cadre of help. Director Lauren Greenfield allows them moments of reflection and sympathy, but also can’t resist some damning edits; for example, Siegel’s comments about indifference to material things are intercut with a shot of him with a pet lion.
Indeed, the filmmakers are given a wealth of funny, decadent images to spice up the drama: a flock of pet peacocks, a stuffed family dog in a glass case (recipient of paranoid barks from its living successor) and a gallery of tacky photographs and paintings.
We get a precise, intimate look at the family, right down to their deteriorating residence and its dog shit-stained carpet (some unfortunate pets die of neglect) and a glance at the company at large, their timeshare business, the flagship hotel in Vegas and dealings with banks and politicians.
A fascinating woman, Virginia is the centrepiece for the film. She’s a compulsive spender, engineering graduate—her gigantic fake breasts are a monumental achievement alone—and former model who endures torturous beauty regimes that are no match for advancing years. Like many advocates of cosmetic surgery, her overhauls seem to make her look older, not younger.
The benefit of hindsight allows us to see these hucksters for what they were; greedy and short sighted, yes, but not manipulative or hypocritical—They bought into the cheap credit addiction as many of us did. Employees of Siegel were encouraged to own timeshares themselves, and the Siegels’ actions bring them to ruin, not rich off poor people’s backs.
It seems this was originally intended to be a light, amusing film about a silly real estate purchase, but then the market crash made it a document of our times. In this case, the world’s gigantic financial loss was storytelling’s gain.