DOCUMENTARIAN Lauren Greenfield got career-definingly lucky with The Queen of Versailles. When she began making a movie about the construction of the largest house in America—a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity designed by time-share mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie—Greenfield inadvertently secured herself a front-row seat to the Siegels' plunge from mindless excess to fiscal uncertainty when the financial crisis wiped out most of David's assets.
As head of the world's most successful time-share operation, David made his fortune selling poor people the illusion of wealth, two weeks a year at a time. As his son puts it, "Everyone wants to be rich. If they can't be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich." And the third best thing is to watch tacky rich people lose all their money and have to put their kids in public school.
After the markets collapse, David is forced to lay off employees, halt construction on his dream home ("My dreams don't even go that big," says a high-school friend of Jackie's), and slash his household expenditures.
As his fortunes decline, David is increasingly reluctant to be interviewed, though his worries are clearly reflected in his graying hair and the bone-deep furrows under his eyes. (He insisted on naming his house "Versailles." He got off easy.) The surprisingly likeable Jackie grounds the film; she's a brash, tacky engineer-turned-beauty queen who claims to love her much older husband, bragging that he "doesn't need Viagra," and joking that since she hit 40, her husband's been threatening to trade her in for two 20-year-olds. (It's one of those jokes with a bit too much truth in it: David is already on his third marriage.)
The Queen of Versailles provides a reality TV-worthy look at the life of an über-rich family in decline, as Jackie crams her eight kids into the car to go to McDonald's, or steps gingerly around the piles of dog shit that her little white dogs leave all over the house. (The maids used to clean it up; she had to lay them off.) But more importantly, it functions as a tidy encapsulation of the financial bubble and its dramatic pop—with a dash of hubris for good measure.
Filmmaker Greenfield is currently being sued for defamation by David Siegel—the same man who bragged on film about using less-than-legal means to get George W. Bush elected. His company is doing fine, David says. Construction on Versailles has resumed.