Movie review: Documentary uses wealthy couple's fall to look at pre-recession American excesses


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Jackie Siegel wasn't to the manor born. But she had lived in the designer-stamped lap of luxury for so long that she forgot what really happens when you belly up to the Hertz rental counter at the airport.

"What's my driver's name?" she asks the man behind the desk who has to break it to her. The car doesn't come with a chauffeur.


'Queen of Versailles'

3.5 stars = Very good
Ratings explained
  • Rating: PG for thematic elements and language.

When you start to build a 90,000-square-foot house inspired by the French palace of Versailles (with some architectural details cribbed from a Vegas hotel), it's easy to forget what the simple folk do.

"The Queen of Versailles" pulls the curtains back on a couple who seem to have it all -- in triplicate -- until the 2008 stock market meltdown. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield was there before, during and after that pivotal moment, and her resulting documentary is fascinating and surprisingly sympathetic to its subjects, the queen more than the king.

It turns out the rich overindulge their children at Christmas, snap at each other when the belt starts to tighten and buy McDonald's for their kids and nibble at the fries on the ride home (in the back of a limo).

"Queen" opens in the B.C. or Before Crash era when shopaholic Jackie is blithely living in Orlando with her husband, David, and their eight children. She's 43, a onetime Mrs. Florida, and he's 74, head of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time share company in the world.

Jackie is David's third spouse, but she's not the typical trophy wife. She grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., studied engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, worked as a model, married, divorced and met Mr. Siegel.

"It took me a while to fall in love with him," she says of the business tycoon. "It just really felt wonderful to be so adored. That's what attracted me."

When we meet them, they are in the process of building the largest home in modern America, with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, a sushi bar, two tennis courts and a full-size baseball field, for starters. Befitting its inspiration and roots, it will be filled with Louis XIV-style furniture.

But when the country sinks into the worst financial crisis since the Depression, the economic tsunami affects not only the Siegels but those in their personal and professional employ.

"Queen of Versailles" is a cautionary tale about living large, indulging in excess just because you can, buying into the American Dream (whether that's a single-family home bigger than the White House or, perhaps, a time share), staying in the dark about your husband's finances or, Mr. Siegel might say, allowing a documentary maker into your home and life.

He is suing Ms. Greenfield, distributor Magnolia Pictures and Bravo Media, which bought the TV rights, over the depiction of his company.

The filmmaker, who met Mrs. Siegel while photographing designer Donatella Versace for a magazine, spent three years chronicling the family and you rarely sense her presence. "Queen" shows us how the 1 percent live -- or lived -- and how sometimes starter mansions are all you need.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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