The Queen of Versailles is one of those strange documentaries where inadvertent timing is everything. There are a number of films with similar strange histories. The Maysles Brothers thought they were making a film about a Rolling Stones concert with Gimme Shelter (1970) when all hell broke loose and a member of the Hell’s Angels stabbed and killed someone in the audience.
Lightning would strike twice for Chris Hegedus. In 1993, she co-directed (with her filmmaking partner and husband D.A. Pennebaker) The War Room, an incredibly intimate look at the people inside the Clinton presidential campaign. As the film was being shot, the first major scandal surrounding Clinton’s infidelity would erupt. And in 2001, Hegedus would co-direct (with Jehane Noujaim) Startup.com, a feature that looked at an Internet company just as the online tech boom went bust. And then there was Page One: Inside the New York Times, the remarkable 2011 documentary that gained rare access in the storied newsroom of America’s most famous newspaper, just as the media depression hit a new low and the paper was facing down its own possible extinction.
The Queen of Versailles feels a lot like one of those. It’s a brilliant, astonishing documentary that proves the old saying about truth being way, way stranger than fiction. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (who, it must be noted, is now being sued by the subjects of the film) gained access to the private lives of David and Jackie Siegel, an uber-wealthy couple who have a gaggle of children and who, for the no other apparent reason than the hell of it, are building the biggest mansion in North America.
At first, it all seems to be unfolding much like an episode of Real Housewives, that seriously irritating (but hugely successful) reality TV franchise. But then, economic tragedy sets in, as does the accompanying Schadenfreude. Mr. Siegel is an economic powerhouse, but his fortune was built on the quicksand that was sub-prime mortgages and the ever-expanding real estate market—one that turned out to not be so infinite after all.
Family tensions rise, help staff are laid off, the private jet is retired, and family members are forced to pick up dog crap themselves (as opposed to one of the maids). The epic mansion project has to be put on hold, and that in itself grants the film its central, otherworldly character.
That buildings or their ruins can offer such profound symbols in non-fiction cinema is pretty incredible in itself. The unfinished house here feels as weighty as the rotting Grey Gardens in the Maysles iconic 1975 doc, or the ruins of the Praise the Lord theme park in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000). The house in this film isn’t haunted. It haunts the Siegels.
As the film proceeds, David Siegel really does emerge as a pretty creepy person. But what is perhaps most intriguing—not to mention laudable—about The Queen of Versailles is precisely the way the Schadenfreude recedes with time. Yes, they have outrageously horrid taste—breast implants, raunchy clothing, faux repro 18th Century furniture, fluffy fag dogs—but just because they drop a lot of money on crap doesn’t mean they deserve to suffer quite this miserably.
Or do they? Sadistic audience tendencies are mighty subjective, and I suspect The Queen of Versailles offers up a litmus test for spectators still struggling to realize our economic footing in the wake of the Wall Street-driven meltdown of four years ago (and I count myself among them). That this portrait emerges as such an ambiguous one at the very time virtually everyone wants to see the rich pay is a tribute to director Greenfield’s talents.
Watching this strangely hypnotic feature raises the question: we may all dream of having money to burn, but how badly do we want to watch the rich burn?
The Queen of Versailles opens Friday, August 31