No place like a one-hectare home

Jackie Siegel and husband David in their  8360 square metre house in Florida.
Jackie Siegel and husband David in their 8360 square metre house in Florida.
Jackie Siegel, the queen of Versailles, at home with her children.

Jackie Siegel, the queen of Versailles, at home with her children.

AS TALES of excess go, the new documentary film The Queen of Versailles has it all. The billionaire older man, the trophy wife, an abundance of sitcom-worthy children including an adopted daughter with a Dickensian dirt-poor background, and a Shakespearian tussle between estranged father and son for acknowledgement.

There's also a host of minor ''downstairs'' characters whose own dramas mirror the protagonists', albeit on a smaller scale.

Yet what could be an insufferable story of your run-of-the-mill billionaires develops into a morality tale on the American dream. And, as is the way with such tales of overreaching, it began with humble beginnings. Well, relatively.

At a Donatella Versace soiree, Jackie Siegel, an open-hearted ex-beauty queen, struck up a conversation with documentary maker Lauren Greenfield. She happened to mention she and her husband David - the time-share ''king'' - were building the biggest house in America.

Like countless travellers before them, the Siegels developed a bad case of l'amour fou for Louis XIV's Versailles palace while holidaying in France. They decided to build their own in Florida. ''We just kept adding rooms,'' they admit of the 8360 square metre house.

Intrigued, and drawn in by Jackie's ''incredible friendliness'', Greenfield didn't know what she might capture. ''That's the beauty and excitement of cinema verite,'' she says. ''I really just roll the camera and follow my instincts.

''At one point David Siegel said, 'The last time my house went up, the marriage went down','' Greenfield recalls. ''I thought, 'OK, that could be interesting'.'' Her backers were not so enthused.

''A question that came up a lot was 'Why is this a film?' she says. ''Is this a reality show? I never wanted it as a reality show because my work is much more sociological and much more serious and about cultural values. I had all these amazing characters, but there wasn't a story.''

Then, a year into filming, everyone's luck changed. Good luck for the filmmakers. Bad luck for the protagonists. The financial crisis hit. In the words of David Siegel, it was becoming a ''riches to rags'' story.

The desire to build a house becomes a quest to save a lucrative family business and a lavish lifestyle.

''It wasn't until they put their house on the market that I even realised the crash was going to be a part of the story,'' says Greenfield. ''I figured they would be the people who would never be affected.''

Instead, in a Citizen Kane-like moment, we see a warehouse of stored dreams. By film's end, billionaire Siegel retreats to his den and becomes the father we all know: ''If you love me you'll turn off the lights,'' he opines to his profligate family.

While the circumstances garner pathos, it's the now requisite public baring of souls that wins us over. Through frank, ''if only'' interviews, and in vulnerable scenes of Jackie undergoing painful beauty treatments, we return to familiar Greenfield subjects.

''I'm attracted to extremes, not because they are exotic or sensational but because in their essence there is a mirror that allows us to see the mainstream,'' she explains.

''That, for me, was really powerful in The Queen of Versailles. It became a universal story and an allegory about our values.''

Greenfield has been investigating the impact of our cultural aspirations since the late '90s. Her first major photo-essay, Fast Forward, captures the cult of appearances in a generation growing up too fast in the shadows of Hollywood. Her follow-up, Girl Culture, focuses on the pressures all women face regarding body image. Both are dispiriting. The latter led to a commission from HBO. Thin is the harrowing result. It documents the struggle of four raw young women in an eating disorder clinic.

''One thing about all the films is that they are all about addiction, in a strange way,'' says Greenfield. ''What I like to do is deconstruct the myths that we have about being rich and being thin and beautiful, and explore what they really mean. Does money really make us happy? What is enough? And what is this addictive quality that makes us never satisfied?

''I think it's actually the idealisation of these values in the culture that make this work important and make me want to do it. It's not critical of the people, but the cultural context.''

The Queen of Versailles screens as part of ACMI's series Honey, I'm Home: Visions Beyond the White Picket Fence, October 18-31;

This story No place like a one-hectare home first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.