Friday October 19, 2012

For the hoi polloi, watching rich folk suffer is a well-established form of entertainment. Could "The Real Housewives of (Anywhere)" prove otherwise? But "The Queen of Versailles," a startlingly candid look at one family’s descent from colossal wealth, offers something more than schadenfreude to please the masses. Through a clear lens unclouded by politics or blame, it offers insight into the hazardous American practice of living beyond our means.

The protagonist (if not quite heroine) of this saga is the regal presence of the title: Jackie Siegel, the 40-something wife of 70-something David Siegel, the real-estate tycoon who built his billions with the Westgate timeshare empire. As a chatty Jackie explains, she grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., became an engineer, ditched IBM for a modeling career, scored success as a Florida beauty queen and then -- after a split from her first husband -- married David. After that: Seven babies and much wanton spending.

Top of the list, in the wanton department, is the house they call Versailles -- a 90,000-square-foot spread outside Orlando outfitted with a bowling alley, a theater, a spa, a full-size baseball field and, get this, 30 bathrooms. The Siegels decided to build it following a visit to the actual Palace of Versailles, in the actual France, figuring their current digs (with a measly 17 bathrooms) wasn’t enough. The sight of Jackie and her exploding cleavage as they wander the half-finished mansion offers the film’s looniest spectacle, like a tour through an abandoned fun park designed by Louis XIV’s tacky suburban uncle.

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The key is that qualifier -- "half-finished." When photographer-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (who made the eating-disorder documentary "THIN") first started shooting "The Queen of Versailles," it was a portrait of the Siegels’ quest to build the biggest single-family home in the country. Then the economy collapsed. Banks clamped down on mortgages. And the Siegels, saddled with debt, found their fortune spectacularly downsized. A brand-spanking-new Westgate tower in Las Vegas stood empty. The Siegels enrolled their kids in public school. (Jackie told them: "Start thinking about what you wanna be when you grow up.")

As for that incomplete architectural monstrosity stacked with crap -- well, that went on the market. And Greenfield’s study of the lush life became, instead, a frank examination of the real vs. the imagined, of the authentic vs. the faux, in a single marriage under whopping stress.

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The cracks that emerge are obvious and many, which isn’t shocking; the true surprise is the way the Siegels bare all for the camera. David’s sour moods, Jackie’s obliviousness, the children’s sensitivity to everything: it’s all there, all mundanely, strangely and painfully familiar to anyone who’s slipped a rung on the economic ladder. Watching them suffer cuts a bit too close for comfort -- or for sport.

"The Queen of Versailles" is rated PG for thematic elements and language.