In 2008, the Siegel family was top of the heap with the wealthy and politically influential David Siegel running the successful Westgate Resorts time-share business. To enjoy their good life, he and his engineer turned beauty queen trophy wife, Jackie, were building the largest single family private home in America. Suddenly, both the US economy and Westgate were rocked by the devastating sub-prime mortgage collapse. In the new economic reality with the business teetering on ruin, we follow the Siegels as they struggle to scale down their grotesquely ostentatious lifestyle. For this overprivileged family, accepting that situation proved a dispiriting struggle even as their unfinished dream home became a monument of their superficial values.

Rich couple downsized in GFC allegory doco.

AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE: One of the defining traits of the screwball comedy era was that it allowed audiences to not only laugh at, but also laugh with America’s extremely wealthy. Long before the rich became perpetual screen villains, the likes of Preston Sturges presented us with daffy heiresses and comically inept magnates. Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles may be a documentary, but this outstanding film certainly allows you to laugh with as well as at the ludicrously rich couple at its centre. The humour may be black, but the movie slowly matches the laughter with a sense of understanding. It never forsakes a shared identification for an easy punchline.

It never forsakes a shared identification for an easy punchline.

By the mid-point of this century’s first decade David Siegel was the Florida-based titan of the time-share holiday apartment business, with his privately owned Westgate Resorts building vast resorts that were sold weeks at a time. The pugnacious 74-year-old is seen sitting early on posing on a throne, and for the self-styled 'Timeshare King" the regal allusions come easily, so together with his 43-year-old wife, Jacqueline ('Jacquie"), he set out to build a palace. At 90,000 square feet their new mansion – which has 30 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms, a roller rink and a baseball field – is intended to be largest private residence in the United States. Why, Greenfield asks David. 'Because I could," is the reply.

But come the global financial crisis, and the end of cheap financing both for David Siegel and his tens of thousands of clients, his company teeters and his trophy home is a liability, unfinished and up for sale with a price tag of $75 million. In an outsized, bizarre way, the Siegels and their brood of children suffer the same fate as millions of ordinary Americans: foreclosed home, financial uncertainty, forced spending cuts. 'How was it flying commercial?" Jacquie asks her kids, and if that’s hardly a deprivation, the filmmaker explores the psychology of downsizing. David, in a state of shock, retreats to his study, King Lear with a calculator, and in the reverberations of a financial system buckling the picture shows how the culture of foreclosure, whether for the couple or their over-leveraged chauffeur who once had 19 mortgaged investment properties, is a kind of psychic trauma.

The film succeeds because Jacquie is not merely a wealthy narcissist. Her shopping may be pathological, but her roots are simple and she retains an unusual accessibility. Even her own children assume she was a trophy wife, but she attempts to hold her marriage together as the culture of excess becomes a nightmarish landscape – dog droppings dot the house because there’s no longer enough staff to clean up after the pampered animals. Greenfield pricks David’s sense of failure, finding bearish unease and a sudden belief that 'we need to live within our means," which could equally apply to a nation or his family, but Jacquie is an unexpected original, with a rebuilt body but a personality that lingers in simpler times. Her follies, such as consoling herself with caviar, are somehow genuine, but in a world that the director visually critiques with withering cinema vérité technique, she offers a personal key to a fascinating turning point in history.


1 hour 40 min