Storyville: The Queen of Versailles, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Storyville: The Queen of Versailles, BBC Four
Canny, compulsive documentary takes the American Dream to its illogical extreme
As a parable on the dissolution of the American Dream, the story of self-made billionaire David Siegel is almost too good to be true. Much like another recent documentary – Bart Layton’s spellbinding The Imposter – Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, broadcast last night in BBC Four's Storyville strand, lays out the kind of story that could only be told by a documentarian, because coming from a screenwriter it would sound both too neat and too far-fetched.
Admittedly on one level, the Siegels’ story is as familiar as they come: Florida real-estate mogul David got rich fast in the early Noughties thanks to the credit-spiking success of his timeshare company – fittingly, a company that provided people with the opportunity to live in homes they could never afford outright – but got hit with equal force by the credit crunch.
What sets this family apart from the average recession-stricken American household is their aspirations. When the 2008 crisis came, the Siegels were midway through building their dream home from the ground up – a 90,000 square foot monstrosity made in the image of the Palace of Versailles. It was to have 30 bedrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, an ice rink, a beauty salon, multiple tennis courts and its own baseball field. It remains, even now as it languishes in a purgatorial state of semi-completion, the largest house in America.
“Is this going to be your bedroom?” a guileless friend asks Siegel's bubbly, intermittently vacant Jackie as they stand inside one of Versailles’ cavernous would-be rooms.
“No, it’s my closet,” she replies blithely.
To describe the Siegels as people with more money than sense would be a gross understatement, and it’s easy to imagine a documentary such as Greenfield’s – which explores their excesses in methodical, intimate and often gory detail – emerging as little more than a wickedly entertaining exercise in schadenfreude. But what’s clear is that Greenfield, for better or worse, genuinely likes her subjects, which doesn’t detract from her clear-eyed and frequently sharp-edged dissection of their blinkered lifestyle. She originally set out to make a documentary about the building of the largest house in America, only finding her final subject once the 2008 crisis stopped the development of Versailles in its gaudy tracks, and it’s perhaps thanks to this late shift that the film feels more like an exploration than a condemnation.
This distinction doesn’t seem as clear to David Siegel, who has filed a lawsuit against Greenfield for defamation, describing the film as a “voyeuristic” and “distorted” take on the facts. The latter count is nigh-on impossible to judge, but he has an undeniable point on the former – for all that it is balanced and level-headed, this is a distinctly voyeuristic experience, and there are moments where it veers uncomfortably close to something like exploitation.
What begins, for example, as an innocent trip to Walmart descends abruptly into disturbing mayhem as Jackie, seemingly in a kind of trance, loads trolley upon trolley with more toys than her kids will ever know what to do with, toys that will remain untouched in their plastic bags at home. This feels like real psychological instability, and not the kind that will benefit from exposure.
But Greenfield’s affection for her subjects ensures that they never remain the victims of their own story for long – Jackie herself is ceaselessly likable despite her tone-deaf ditziness. The Queen of Versailles is a canny and compulsive study that holds the cloud-cuckoo extremes of the Siegels’ particular American Nightmare up for scrutiny, without ever holding the family themselves at arms’ length.
Watch the trailer for The Queen of Versailles
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