It has been said that we live in a new gilded age, in which the rich take it as their sovereign right and civic duty to get richer, while the rest of us look on in envy, simmer with resentment or dream of rebellion. “The Queen of Versailles,” a new documentary by Lauren Greenfield about life on the thin, fragile, sugarcoated top layer of the upper crust, captures the tone of the times with a clear, surprisingly compassionate eye.
A gaudy guilty pleasure that is also a piece of trenchant social criticism, the movie starts out in the mode of reality television, resembling the pilot for a new “Real Housewives” franchise or a reboot of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Before long, though, it takes on the coloration of a Theodore Dreiser novel — not quite an American tragedy but a sprawling, richly detailed study of ambition, desire and the wild swings of fortune that are included in the price of the capitalist ticket.
When they first sit for Ms. Greenfield’s cameras, in 2007, David and Jackie Siegel are living an outsized, unlimited version of the American dream. His time-share business, Westgate Resorts, is booming. Families seduced by easy credit, aggressive sales tactics and the chance for a taste of luxury are eager to sign on the dotted line, and a sleek new Westgate dream palace has just gone up in Las Vegas.
Mr. Siegel is happy to talk about his modest beginnings in Indiana, his hard work and his devotion to causes including the Miss America organization and the Republican Party. His wife, a former model and beauty contestant, is outgoing and unpretentious, so tickled by her extravagant life that it is hard not to share her enthusiasm.
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‘The Queen of Versailles’ and Its Lawsuit
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Feeling a bit squeezed in their 26,000-square-foot mansion in Orlando, Fla., the Siegels are building a palatial home more than three times as big. Envisioned as the largest residence in America, the house is modeled, with little irony and less restraint, on the French chateau referred to in the film’s title.
History buffs will note that the inhabitants of that Versailles were evicted by an angry mob. The Siegels, as of this writing still in possession of their heads, were kept out of their stately pleasure dome by the invisible hand of the market, to which Ms. Greenfield may owe a story credit. If you detect a spoiler here, it’s hardly my fault: blame the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the real estate market, events that “The Queen of Versailles” recaptures from an especially intimate and fascinating perspective.
The Siegels are separated by 30 years — Jackie is David’s third wife; he is her second husband — and united by seven children, who traipse through the movie, along with a staff of maids and nannies and an indeterminate number of fluffy white dogs. The household is a busy place, its rhythms determined by Mr. Siegel’s work ethic and Mrs. Siegel’s passionate consumerism. They are frank and open with Ms. Greenfield’s crew and generous with their time, allowing a remarkable degree of scrutiny even as the gilding begins to peel away.
(It’s true that Mr. Siegel is suing Ms. Greenfield and the film’s distributor for defamation, but in America, to paraphrase William Blake, litigation is true friendship.)
It may seem at times as if the Siegels are being held up for ridicule or facile judgment, and “The Queen of Versailles” does have its moments of real-life comedy. “How was it, flying commercial?” Mrs. Siegel asks one of her children as they arrive in her western New York hometown for a visit. Descending on the car rental counter, she asks, “What’s the name of my driver?”
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But back in Florida her actual driver speaks of Mrs. Siegel and her husband as friends, and their relations with the people around them seem relatively untouched by snobbery or noblesse oblige. It is hard not to enjoy Mrs. Siegel’s company or to be unmoved by aspects of her life story.
Not that everything is harmonious. There are visible strains in the marriage, and a fair amount of evidence that Mr. Siegel is not always such a nice guy. One of his sons from an earlier marriage, now a partner in Westgate, says some things that hint at a cold, narcissistic paternal core. But the children of farmers, doctors and factory workers have also been known to find fault with their distant, driven, demanding fathers.
“The very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “are different from you and me.”
“Yes,” Ernest Hemingway may or may not have replied. “They have more money.”
“The Queen of Versailles” upholds Hemingway’s demystified view and testifies to the curious logic of class in the new gilded age. The Siegels are proud of how much they have, embracing the idea that what distinguishes them from others — from Westgate’s customers or the members of its sales force, from friends and family in the heartland — is not quality but quantity. They are just like everybody else; they just have more. Mrs. Siegel treats herself to a tin of caviar on Christmas morning, but she also likes Chicken McNuggets and diet soda.
David and Jackie Siegel are no better than any of the rest of us. That may go without saying. But the reverse is also true, and Ms. Greenfield’s real achievement is to disarm the reflex of superiority that the spectacle of her subjects’ way of life may provoke in some viewers.
Schadenfreude and disgust may be unavoidable, but to withhold all sympathy from the Siegels is to deny their humanity and shortchange your own. Marvel at the ornate frame, mock the vulgarity of the images if you want, but let’s not kid ourselves. If this film is a portrait, it is also a mirror.
“The Queen of Versailles” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Obscene wealth, but mostly clean language.