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MOVIE REVIEW: Documentary ‘The Queen of Versailles’ an escape that turns somber

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

(PG)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Equally depressing, side-splitting and enraging, "The Queen of Versailles" is a documentary that shows what can go wrong when the "nouveau riche" try to be something they're not. It's a damning indictment of the more base facets of humanity that are regularly celebrated on reality TV shows where the rich, famous and clueless become media darlings and the envy of the great unwashed masses.

Starting out as an orange farmer, Floridian David Siegel pilfered a concept from a prospective business associate in the '70s and gobbled it up whole hog. He took the vacation timeshare concept and parlayed it into an empire. At its peak, Siegel's Westgate Resorts operated dozens of timeshare properties in the U.S. with more than $1 billion in annual earnings. Along the way, Siegel amassed many high-profile "friends" in the political, sports, financial and entertainment arenas, two ex-wives, a gargantuan ego and a garish mansion. Then came third wife Jackie.

A former beauty pageant winner from upstate New York, Jackie was a woman destined to become some vein rich guy's trophy wife. Born into a lower middle-class family but smart and savvy enough to land a job as a high-tech programmer, Jackie married then quickly divorced an abusive husband and parlayed her Barbie-Doll looks by wedging herself into high-end social circles that included men like David.

On screen, Jackie feigns that she played hard-to-get regarding David's advances, but it's clear she was aiming for a huge sugar daddy and she hit the mother lode. Some 30-odd years her senior, David fit the bill perfectly and the textbook May-December romance was launched.

Seven children (eight if you count a niece that Jackie -- as she puts it -- inherited), lots of Botox and breast augmentation surgeries later, the Siegel family was outgrowing their spread and needed an upgrade. Banking on a highly speculative future income via the timeshare business through a financial system that was giving money away to anyone who could fog a mirror, the Siegels started building their dream home (based on a palace in Versailles, France). It took up more than 90,000 square feet and would, when finished, be the largest single-family home in America.

Over the two years of filming, director Lauren Greenfield's project went from a chronicle of embarrassing excess and became a cringe-inducing riches-to-rags tale. The Siegels -- like a great many self-absorbed, freshly-minted celebrities -- relished the "dig me" aspect of starring in their own feature film and as such completely let their guard down; at least for a while.

In the opening scenes, Greenfield's camera pans the walls where images of the couple and their children have been augmented into paintings of royalty. The bright and bouncy Jackie -- always dressed as if she's going to an audition at a strip club -- chirps on endlessly about what's going into the new home. There will be two tennis courts, a baseball field, two bowling alleys, two health clubs, three swimming pools, a movie theater, a $250,000 stained-glass sky window and 10 -- that's right, 10 -- kitchens.

For his part, David rambles on about his political connections and states that he and he alone was responsible for George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 presidential election. When Greenfield presses him for details, he slowly demurs stating that that wouldn't be a good idea because it was "probably illegal." When asked why he's building such a huge home, he responds coolly with "because I can." Folks, you can't make this stuff up; it's priceless.

Going into further detail on what happens in the wake of the 2008 recession would be patently unfair to any interested viewers but it gets way ugly. No one should relish in the downfall of another person and thanks to Greenfield's emotionless, perfectly-balanced presentation, we actually feel somewhat bad but can't help but chortling repeatedly at how the Siegels mishandle their tumultuous economic spiral. It's a slow-motion train-wreck of epic proportions and try as you might, it will be impossible for you to look away for a second. (Magnolia)