F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that "the rich are very different from you and me." Director Lauren Greenfield, in her fascinating documentary "The Queen of Versailles," tries to argue that the rich aren't that different -- even if her subjects sometimes demonstrate how different they really are.
Greenfield trains her artful eye on David and Jackie Siegel. David Siegel is CEO of Westgate Resorts, a massive timeshare firm that runs locations all over the country (including one in Park City). Jackie is David's 30-years-younger "trophy wife." (Someone in the film uses this term, so Mr. Siegel's quite busy lawyers -- who filed a lawsuit against Greenfield and her producers before the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival -- can save their breath on me.)
As the movie begins, the Siegels are enjoying the lavish amenities that Westgate's profits have earned them. David Siegel is just opening what he hopes will be the crown jewel of his business, a huge time-share resort in Las Vegas. And they are in the process of building the largest house in America, a 90,000-square-foot mansion modeled after Versailles.
The story changes abruptly as the housing bubble pops. Suddenly, Westgate's customers can no longer take out the risky subprime loans that were once readily available -- and without those loans, David Siegel's dreams and his empire are at the risk of collapsing.
From here, Greenfield focuses much of her film on Jackie's attempts to "economize" for herself and the Siegels' eight kids. The results -- like a trip to Walmart in which Jackie overloads on unnecessary Christmas gifts -- are pathetic and slightly comical, like a weird combination of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and "Hoarders."
But there's more going on in Greenfield's film than simply reality-show titillation. She captures some compelling moments of real-life drama, such as when some of the Siegels' employees open up about how the economy has hit them hard.
"The Queen of Versailles" also succeeds in making the difficult argument that the Siegels are closer to regular people than most of America's billionaires. David Siegel actually built his business himself, and he risks losing it if his Vegas deal goes bust. Compared with most of America's superrich -- who inherited their billions and keep them safely socked away in offshore banks while gambling with other people's money -- the Siegels are, surprisingly, more salt of the earth than "let them eat cake."