The Queen of Versailles provides an unblinking glimpse of money and privilege, along with the sharp disconnect from reality that such wealth brings. Indeed this documentary unwinds like a reality show on the surface but with a deep ironic underbelly, as the rich people on display are slow to react to their changing financial situations.

Director Lauren Greenfield assures that “nothing is staged; it’s all life unfolding,” in a phone interview with Free Press Houston. “This film allowed me to discover the magic of cinema verite.” Greenfield spent three years filming the story of David and Jackie Siegel. “There were ten trips, all together I shot around 200 hours of footage,” Greenfield adds.

To hear David Siegel tell the story he’s incredibly rich, lives in Florida and may be personally responsible for Bush winning the election. Jackie is a trophy wife, in the parlance of the times, beyond imagination. Together they were so inspired by a trip to Versailles that they decided to model their dream home on the French royal palace. At the time of construction it’s literally the largest single home in terms of square feet in America. Only Siegel’s business fortunes dip during the recession, and still under construction the “house goes up for sale in 2010,” says Greenfield.

The Queen of Versailles acts like a litmus test. You will see it and react to the plight of the Siegels based on your perception of the 1% and the 99% of our society. Yet The Queen of Versailles plays to both camps. Sure, there’s a sense of the outrageousness as we watch the Siegels cavort around their Atlantic City casino and flaunt their arrogant opinions and revel in the plasticity of their possessions. But they’re also a tight family unit who in brief moments show true human emotions and react to their financial panic with fortitude, followed by solitude in David’s case. And Greenfield’s camera is there to catch all of the above.

Perhaps the most telling moment unfolds when Jackie, having lost the use of the family limousine goes to Hertz to rent a car. As she swipes her credit card she asks the counter person what the name of her driver is.

This is a story of people who’ve insulated themselves so deeply with layers of money that they live in a citadel of opulence with no idea how normal people live. Yet at the same time when those walls come tumbling down they embrace the change and keep their heads above water. Jackie in particular sees the film as portraying a family that was wronged, and is actively promoting the film at festivals and screening Q&As. “She’s in the room next to me talking to other reporters,” remarks Greenfield.

The Queen of Versailles opens exclusively at the Sundance Cinemas Houston.

— Michael Bergeron