Timeshare mogul David Siegel cried during Miss America, flaunted the brightest sign on the Las Vegas strip, and refused to disclose his campaign contribution to George W. Bush. His sly smile and Gatsby-like belief that money can define one’s identity disappeared when the Great Recession of 2008 hit and he fired 7,000 employees.
While most of us can’t relate to losing a yacht or private jet, Lauren Greenfield in her 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles” connects the Siegel family’s misfortunes to ordinary Americans affected by the evaporation of easy credit. The Siegel decline is the story of every American family, sprinkled with neon glitz, plastic breasts, and the construction of a 90,000 square foot Versailles replica in Orlando—the largest single family home in the United States.
Greenfield paints harsh portraits of David Siegel, his wife Jackie, and their eight children. Their garage cluttered with scores of new bicycles, the raw Americana of eating Chicken McNuggets in a limo, and pet neglect intermix self-absorption and incompetence in new money’s melting pot. Jackie’s disconnect crescendos when she inquires at an airport car rental desk about chauffeurs.
Filming techniques in this documentary are not ambitious, as Greenfield represents this couple’s normal; she primarily uses interviews and simple subject tracking. Because characters’ “me-first” obsessions lead to meaningful reflections, her subjects contextualize the family’s struggles within the economic downturn. The lack of a musical score and spartan editing techniques make the family’s struggles feel genuine.
The starkest contrast is between Siegel’s opulence and his Filipina housekeeper’s ruptured family life. He commissions paintings of himself on horseback while she sends remittances to the Philippines. She hasn’t seen her son in 19 years and missed her father’s death.
The domestic worker is a device to highlight Siegel’s emotional indifference toward his family, as he voluntarily neglects his wife and kids amidst significant financial turmoil. David’s eventual alienation evoked Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane.
Greenfield’s image of the Siegel family elicits discomfort. Strained finances often lead to strained family relations, which the documentary captures. For everybody, tougher decisions and higher stress have changed the national family fabric since the 2008 downturn. Even if you find Jackie’s $10,000 ostrich feather Gucci pants repulsive, this film explains Recession stress and convoluted family dynamics in a humorous and relatable manner.