By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As the superb new documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” so effortlessly demonstrates, royalty is a relative term.
We are not talking about Marie-Antoinette and her equally doomed King Louis XVI here. We are talking about Jackie and David Siegel, a gilded couple in Orlando, Florida, who learn the Golden Rule the hard way. As in, he who has the gold, rules.
Siegel had the gold for a good long time. A dealer in time-share resorts, he’s been living the good life: huge house, private jet, enough servants to handle the Romneys and Queen Elizabeth. At the same time.
He also has the requisite trophy wife — busty, buoyant Jackie, who’s about 30years younger than him. Insanely acquisitive, she wants to trade in the paltry 20-or-so thousand foot mansion they currently inhabit, along with their seven children and several dogs (a couple of them gone, but not forgotten a la Roy Rogers’ Trigger).
Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield initially sets us up to sneer at Jackie, who barely exists unless she’s on a spending spree. But we slowly learn she’s more than just another gold-digging bimbo. Yes, she makes outrageous, tacky choices — her tour of the unfinished faux-Versailles is priceless — but she also wants the best for her family. Even if the best means these amazing emblems of Walmart taste.
The phrase, more money than sense occurs. Or, empty is the head that wears the crown.
Except, Jackie isn’t empty-headed. Greenfield, who stayed with the family almost five years, wants us to know that — even as she gives us a sideways camera-eyeroll that asks, Why didn’t these people ask me to leave three years ago?
Because, you see, what began as a chronicle of conspicuous consumption as its craziest evolved into something far more.
A not-so-funny thing happened to the Siegels on their way to the palace.
Call it The Recession. Siegel’s business went bust — and I’m not talking silicone enhancements a la Jackie. Before too long, they are reduced to flying commercial (Jackie patiently explains to the children why there are other people on the plane) and the once-huge staff is reduced to four. Followed by …. poop on the Persian carpets and pet lizards that have died of starvation in a house of plenty.
The filmmaker stayed around and her cameras kept rolling. Siegel, who has since sued, comes off the worst — like an amateur theatre King Lear, locked away in his study, eating off a TV tray and still screaming at his family (or ignoring them). Plucky Jackie may have been thinking “reality show.” If the Kardashians, why not her? But she doesn’t come off as cunning enough to really pull it off.
Take “The Queen of Versailles” as nouveau-riche cautionary tale or as a gold-lame metaphor for what’s happened to the U.S. economy or simply as the story of a family who had no idea how they came off to an outsider’s eye (as happened in the brilliant dysfunctional-family-meltdown, “Capturing the Friedmans.”)
The winner of the top prize at Sundance and RiverRun, “Queen” makes you shudder with laughter and a kind of jaw-dropped horror. The rich may not be all that different. Even so, when it’s all said and done, they still want to be on-camera.