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Movie Review: The Queen of Versailles

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Schadenfreude, the feeling of happiness at the misfortunes of another, is a tempting thing -- mean-spirited, to be sure, but tempting, nonetheless. That's particularly true when dealing with characters like the ones at the center of Lauren Greenfield's stunning documentary, The Queen of Versailles.

But it's hard to feel any joy at the cascading troubles visited upon Jackie and David Siegel, who let Greenfield and her cameras into their lives shortly after the economy crashed in late 2008 -- taking David Siegel's billionaire fortune with it. You feel pity, yes; and you get the occasional laugh (OK, more than occasional) at Jackie's chipper cluelessness. But schadenfreude? Not so much.

The Queen of Versailles chronicles the Siegels' travails from early 2009 into 2011. At the start, they're partway through construction of their new home in Florida: a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity that will, when finished, be the largest private residence in America. It's modeled on the Palace at Versailles in France and will have more bathrooms, bedrooms and other amenities than the average square mile of homes in a (vanishing) middle-class neighborhood.

At one point, Jackie takes a friend (and the camera) on a tour of the incomplete structure: "This is what $5 million of marble looks like," she says brightly, gesturing to a stack of stone, awaiting implantation (or whatever it is you do with marble).

David, meanwhile, is a self-aggrandizing rich guy who takes credit for swinging Florida to George W. Bush in 2000 ("Can't talk about that, heh heh heh," he says). Jackie is wife number whatever. He's got unhappy kids from other marriages spread around the country; his oldest son works for him -- and works hard for his attention and approval.

Siegel made his fortune in timeshares. He buys them, builds them and sells them -- and is seen urging his sales force on as he gets ready to open a massive new structure in Las Vegas.

Nothing is too good -- or too much -- for Siegel, a guy who commissioned a painting of himself and Jackie as a Roman emperor and his queen. He loves to spend money -- and, apparently, spread his seed. Jackie, a former beauty queen from Binghamton, NY, happily pops out his progeny -- eight kids, at the point the movie was made.

That's a decision she eventually regrets, at least in the abstract: "If I'd known I wasn't going to have nannies, I wouldn't have had so many kids," she says without irony.

But that's what it comes to: As the economy contracts like a slug that's been sprinkled with salt thanks to the economic policies of the Bush era (and, to be fair, the Clinton era as well), Siegel sees his empire start to crumble. As credit dries up, he is forced to halt construction on Versailles -- and to try to get the message through Jackie's head that they have to scale back their lifestyle.

That means letting half their home staff go. Jackie, who has what seems like a dozen dogs of all sizes, discovers that, in fact, dogs poop -- in the house, when left unattended.

This review continues on my website.