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The Queen of Versailles

Gareth Higgins

Directed by  Lauren Greenfield
Certificate PG, 100 minutes

The best documentaries have a sense of genuine discovery - a sense that the director didn't know what was going to happen before they turned the camera on. The Queen of Versailles is one - a visually interesting, politically fascinating, entertaining guilty pleasure of a tale about how the owner of the biggest Timeshare holiday company in the world nearly went bust while trying to build the largest private residence in the USA. It's easy to make fun of these people, or to laugh at their misfortune, but this is neither Candid Camera nor a Victorian circus.  

Our protagonists, the Siegel family, are illustrated in shades of grey. The wealthy patriarch is not a robber baron, but comes off as a decent bloke trying to make ends meet and care for his family. The peroxide trophy wife with the apparently plastic chest is no dumb blonde. She's a college graduate and good mother, and has compassion enough to foster another child from difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately Mr Siegel's acknowledgement that he may have overseen criminal conduct in the 2000 Presidential election,  and the fact that the financial crisis that mirrors itself in his home was caused partly by the very kind of loan selling in which his company specializes, are passed over without comment. This is an observational, not investigative film; and something is missing here that leaves the package looking more like a souffle than a substantial meal.

However, The Queen of Versailles is still a cut above - a film that began, it would seem, as a mildly snarky attempt at mocking the rich, but ultimately becomes a painfully intimate portrayal of a family in crisis - powerful people who elicit sympathy despite the fact that the crisis was of their own making. 

Gareth Higgins