When director Lauren Greenfield started filming The Queen of Versailles, a documentary about 74-year-old David Siegel, a billionaire timeshare magnate from Orlando, and Jackie, a trophy wife 30 years his junior, they had outgrown their 26,000-square-foot home.
To consider that unimaginable is to underestimate Jackie's talent for filling it — with eight children, a second family of live-in nannies and housekeepers, pets both domesticated and exotic and enough tacky nouveau riche tchotchkes to inspire an entire season of Hoarders. Even Jackie's generously augmented breasts take up a lot of space.
As the film opens, the Siegels are in the middle of building a $100 million monument to their success: a palace modeled after Versailles and the top of the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas. At 90,000 square feet, it would be the largest single-family home in America, with amenities that include a bowling alley, an ice-skating rink, a full-size baseball field, 30 bathrooms and the mother of all walk-in closets.
Then the housing market collapses, severely damaging David's Westgate Resorts empire, which was built on the cheap money and subprime chicanery that torpedoed the economy. And when the credit suddenly dries up, the Siegels' own private Versailles becomes just another item in a portfolio of toxic assets.
There's a lot of fun to be had in laughing at the 0.001 percent in The Queen of Versailles, and even a certain amount of schadenfreude in witnessing their humbling reversal of fortune. But Greenfield's superb documentary isn't about stoking class resentment or indulging in Real Housewives-style soap opera or lifestyle porn.
The story of the Siegels is the story of late-'00s America writ large, when families suddenly found themselves underwater and living well beyond their means, and the banks that once served them eagerly were now circling like vultures. In the Siegels' case, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Greenfield's refusal to pass judgment on the Siegels lends her subjects and their marriage unexpected complexity and depth — especially Jackie, a true force of nature. She may fit the "trophy wife" profile — ex-beauty queen, gaudily accessorized, plastic surgeon on speed dial — but she's also an inveterate optimist and self-starter, someone who worked as an engineer before her modeling career. It isn't easy for her to control her excesses or look outside herself, but she can be generous and humane, and her devotion to her husband includes the latter part of "for richer or for poorer."
And loving David is no picnic, especially once his business starts to implode. In 2007, he's a glad-handing power broker, bragging openly about the possibly extra-legal things he did to get George W. Bush elected in 2000. But in the years after the collapse of September 2008, he becomes an irritable crank, holing up in his office day and night in a desperate bid to liquidate enough assets to reanimate his Vegas timeshare behemoth and take his place on the throne once more.
It's an uphill battle: The market for a half-built mansion in Orlando, even at the reduced price of $75 million, is a limited one. If Shaq passes, you're more or less out of luck.
The Queen of Versailles is the lucky case of a documentary where life intervenes and deepens the film in completely unexpected ways. Simply following the construction of the world's largest home would have been enough for a good profile, especially with engaging subjects like the Siegels at the center.
But the recession requires Greenfield to throw out her plans and bear witness to the Siegel estate as it quickly erodes from a Xanadu-level pleasure dome to the poop-infested rot of Grey Gardens. As go the Siegels, so goes the nation. (Recommended) Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.