When preparing to film The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield believed that she would be filming the story about a couple, Jackie and David Siegel, building the biggest single-family home in the United States. The mansion was to be called Versailles, mirroring the extravagant palace in France. While filming was underway, the financial crisis of 2008 hit unexpectedly, changing not only everything for the Siegels but also everything about Greenfield’s vision. When talking about her filmmaking, Greenfield says that she “looks for people that reveal our cultural values.” And that theme is definitely clear to viewers watching this film. Throughout the documentary, there is a sense of abundance. Nothing is enough for the Siegels. However, there seems to be a clear discrepancy between the way that the Siegels are portrayed and perceived by the audience and the way that they perceive themselves. While every documentary strives to tell some story and show some message, non-narrative documentaries, such as this one, usually let the subjects do the speaking. The end result is that the audience ultimately ends up seeing the story through the subjects’ perspectives. However, Greenfield effectively paints a greedy portrait of the Siegels, contrasting the successful one they have of themselves, which not only gives a satirical view of their story, but also epitomizes the view that most Americans have of the notorious “one percent.”
The first impression the audience gets of the Siegels is in the opening sequence. As shown in Image 1, the first image of David Siegel is him readjusting his gold rings. Soon after, there is a wider image that reveals Siegel sitting on a gold throne with elaborate designs. Then the audience sees his wife, Jackie Siegel, who is clearly much younger than her husband. All of this paints an image of them from the beginning as being lavish and slightly ridiculously so. Because Greenfield’s background is in photography, she takes pictures throughout the movie, which also help to portray this image of the subjects. She describes her photography as “often a sociological look at American culture.” In this opening scene, the audience sees the first example of this, which is shown in Image 2. This image perfectly captures what the rest of what the movie will be about. This couple, with a 30-year age difference, wants to show off their wealth in the most obvious way possible: by purchasing objects that no one else would likely be able to afford. They want people to see their extravagant lifestyle, but are unaware of how their privilege gives audiences a completely skewed perspective. Greenfield uses that blissful ignorance to her advantage in the rest of the film.
As the opening sequence continues, viewers see an array of family portraits. Many of them are family photographs, which are not completely out of the ordinary. Mixed in are clippings from newspapers and articles describing Jackie as “Having it All” and David as “the Magic’s man,” letting the audience know that not only are these wealthy people but they are also powerful and known. Included are increasingly ridiculous clips reflecting the Siegels’ lifestyle when the filming started, such as a photograph of Jackie as a Grecian goddess with her children, shown in Image 3. There is footage of the family inside of a private plane, where the audience sees how big the family is as well, and footage of Jackie trying on a gown and twirling in it, in classic queen fashion. Some of these images are contrasted with David working, such as doing business on the private plane, and the audience starts to get the sense that the more excessive of the two is Jackie, who simply says that she put her trust in her husband when she married him. Then, as the sequence is ending, the audience sees the name of the film: The Queen of Versailles. This name seals the deal in portraying the Siegels as people of unnecessary abundance. While the name is appropriate to the movie because the Siegels themselves were the ones who decided to base their mansion around the French Palace of Versailles, what they do not understand is the ironic, but entirely fitting, situation that they have placed themselves in. By naming the movie “The Queen of Versailles,” Greenfield is drawing clear parallels between Jackie and Marie Antoinette, who ultimately brought herself, her family, and her country to financial ruin during the French Revolution. What Greenfield later reveals in the movie is that the Siegels had to stop construction on their mansion due to the recession and David’s timeshare empire in debt by millions of dollars. However, Jackie, similar to Antoinette, remains blissfully ignorant to the whole situation and continues to spend, driving her family deeper into the hole.
This type of oblivious spending is epitomized in another scene towards the end, when Jackie is planning a Christmas party and goes to Walmart to buy gifts for the kids. As she is filling up the cart with more gifts, David’s voice is overlaying the footage as he says that it is “hard for her to cut back, she is still impulsive.” At this point in the documentary, David has shown constant stress over the apparent demise of his empire and is millions of dollars in debt with the banks. Jackie, while somewhat aware of the situation since she does recognize that her husband has told her not to spend money, does not seem to be as concerned about it and is spending frivolously. She is buying things in an exaggerated amount, which is shown in Image 4, where she has four full carts of gifts solely for her children and even the dogs. As she is shopping, everyone seems to be telling her that it is too much, including the housekeeper, but she continues buying regardless. Greenfield uses the informative style of documentary filmmaking to show the struggle that the Siegels are going through as a sort of depiction of how the recession affected all Americans, but also a cautionary tale about how overspending, or spending money that doesn’t exist, is what led to this recession. David continues commenting on Jackie’s spending by saying that she “collects everything, she can’t just have one thing, she has to have many, she can’t just have one child, she has to have seven,” which further shows the different worlds in which these two closely related people are living. This is also shown in Image 5, when Jackie returns from her shopping trip and they are unloading the car. As they are about to put away the bikes and the audience sees how many bikes there already are, Greenfield perfectly captures visually the comments that David was making about Jackie.
The rest of the sequence continues to show the rift between David and Jackie in regard to their financial situation. As David sits in the corner of the house making comments on the state of the banks and why they are failing during this recession, Jackie is hosting a Christmas party that, while still extravagant, is a huge cut back for the Siegels. However, David doesn’t seem to be as affected by the cuts as Jackie is; she is running all over the house constantly making comments on how much they’ve had to change, such as not having a party planner to help them with the event. On the other hand, David is sitting by himself in a corner talking about how his debt went from $19 million to $3.2 million without any good reason and how “this is the reason the banks are in trouble.” To further contrast David and Jackie’s positions, Greenfield intercuts an interview with David into the footage of the party where he says “nothing makes me happy anymore.” Meanwhile, Jackie is saying that she “just wants her friends and family to be happy.” The shot, seen in Image 6, is very different from the rest of the sequence that the audience sees, which enhances the contrast between Jackie’s reality and David’s reality. In this shot, he is also sitting on a chair rather than the throne that he was on at the beginning of the film, further representing his financial and emotional demise.
“[Documentary film] survival has depended on a public culture that promotes learning as a crucial part of the film experience” (Corrigan, White 257). Greenfield has definitely taken a position where she wants to teach, or at least inform, the audience with this story. While the movie had a different purpose when filming began, it took a new turn once the recession hit giving Greenfield the opportunity to tell a story that could relate to the rest of America. When asked what made the characters relatable to others, Greenfield said “everybody is familiar with the way financial problems can cause a lot of tension in the household, so they're kind of like everyone else in that sense.”