'The Queen of Versailles' shows the end of the party ★★★★

Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield met the Siegels at the right time for her, wrong time for the economy

'The Queen of Versailles'

Jacqueline and David Siegel star in "The Queen of Versailles." (August 2, 2012)

"The Queen of Versailles"is an indelible portrait of an American family at its most blithely macabre.

It comes from director and producer Lauren Greenfield. She began filming the saga of Jacqueline and David Siegel and their Xanadu, their San Simeon, their 90,000-square-foot Florida dream home, before the economy caved in 2008. The home was inspired by both the real Versailles in France and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, and with their hilariously conspicuous consumption, the Siegels are gifts that keep on giving to any alert documentary filmmaker.

But Greenfield is after more than mere schadenfreude. She knows her subjects are ready-made symbols of the overlord class caught unawares with their extremely expensive pants down. They need no satirizing. Scored wittily by composer Jeff Beal, the film glides along on Beal's waltz theme, a theme full of elegance and class and a discordant hint of storm clouds.

In a previous lifetime Jackie Siegel was a working-class kid from New York state who made money as a cocktail waitress and, eventually, as a model. In her first marriage she competed in the Mrs. Florida beauty pageant and won. "I met my current husband through Mrs. World," she mentions, in one of the film's many pearls.

Before 2008 Jackie's second husband, David, ruled as the king of time-shares. With its fancy new headquarters on the Vegas strip, Westgate Resorts, he says in an early interview, is the "largest privately owned time-share company in the world." On camera he claims he was instrumental in getting his preferred 2000 presidential candidate,George W. Bush, elected in Florida. How so? He'd rather not go into it, he says, because "it may not have been legal." If those Siegel palace walls could only talk.

As they begin construction on the largest single-family home in America — 30 bathrooms in all — the Siegels are making do with their 26,000-square-foot starter palace, with a crummy 17 bathrooms. Their eight kids are used to things a certain way, as are their parents. After the economic pratfall, Jackie is required to fly commercial. When she gets to the airport rental car counter, she blithely inquires about the name of her driver. Of course there is no driver waiting for her this time. The reaction behind the counter, about four or five seconds of screen time, is funnier and truer than anything else I've seen all year.

Watching "The Queen of Versailles," you wonder if decades from now, Greenfield's documentary will be considered a key artifact of an era of heinous excess bleeding into an era of heinous uncertainty. The people who work for the Siegels, the limo driver ("Not that many people can afford that kind of house. In that $75 million range.") and the nanny (who has not seen her own faraway son in nearly 20 years), become major players in this tragicomedy of manners. Their employers are absurd and galling, yet also human and vulnerable. And that's why Greenfield's film amounts to more than an artfully snide "This American Life" segment writ large.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Queen of Versailles' -- 4 stars

MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)

Running time: 1:40

Opening: Friday

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