“It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline/ But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline/ Fidel Castro’s brother spies a rich lady who’s crying over luxury’s disappointment. So he walks over and he’s trying to sympathize with her/ But thinks that he should warn her/ That the Third World is just around the corner.” — Billy Bragg, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”

“The Queen of Versailles,” the maddening, entertaining new documentary from director Lauren Greenfield playing Thursday at Space Gallery in Portland, will test the true limits of your empathy.

Chronicling two tumultuous years in the life of billionaire timeshare mogul David Siegel, his wife, Jackie, and their seven kids, the film begins as a portrait of nearly unimaginable opulence.

The Siegels (he a silver-haired 70, she the curvaceous former beauty queen 30 years his junior) cuddle on a literal gilded throne and coo about their upcoming move from their current mansion (with a mere 17 bathrooms) to their under-construction new one. It’s a mammoth castle patterned on the titular French palace and contains, in addition to 30 bathrooms, a baseball diamond, bowling alley, an ice/roller rink and some $5 million worth of imported marble.

For the film’s first half hour, we’re treated to a parade of mounting evidence of the Siegels as paragons of American consumerism, almost stereotypical examples of the 1 percent’s heedless pursuit of luxury for its own sake. (Plus, David’s smug gloating about the possibly illegal methods he used to get George W. Bush elected isn’t especially endearing.)

But when the economic crisis hits and David’s real estate empire is thrown into crisis almost overnight, the Siegels’ wealth suddenly can’t insulate them from uncertainty and fear any longer.

And “The Queen of Versailles” becomes a test of exactly how much the viewer can sympathize with the plight of two not overly likable billionaires turned millionaires who suddenly begin to feel the barest hint of the everyday financial woes their wealth protected them from.

As Greenfield’s cameras follow the Siegels, the viewer’s empathy gene kicks in — it’s hard not to feel for people in trouble, and they’re not without redeeming qualities. Born into relatively humble circumstances, David and Jackie seem a good fit. A self-made man with an eye for young pageant queens finds a woman fleeing an abusive first marriage who wants nothing more than to be a pampered society wife. And they seem quite content, as long as the money removes all obstacles.

Unfortunately, when trouble hits, our ability to involve ourselves in the Siegels’ travails is undermined not only by their previous cloud of luxury, but by their respective lack of self-awareness as they bemoan their fate.

For David, the parallels between the subprime mortgage practices that contributed to the financial meltdown and his cheap money-fueled sales of luxurious timeshares to people who can’t really afford them go largely unaddressed.

Instead, he removes himself further emotionally from his family as he desperately scrambles to save both his uncompleted opulent dream home and the massive corporate skyscraper he built in Las Vegas, his stubborn quest to prop up the symbols of his former power seeming more vain than noble.

Meanwhile, while Jackie’s growing panic at David’s increasing distance and her family’s increasingly precarious position is hard to watch, her childlike bafflement at why this is happening to her (and her seemingly pathological inability to stop spending money) ultimately causes serious empathy fatigue.

As a metaphor for the flawed values that contributed to the financial collapse, “The Queen of Versailles” is pretty illuminating. As a character study, it’s hard not to respond to David’s closing summation that, “We need to live within our means and don’t spend money that we don’t have” with a shrug, and perhaps a little anger.

“The Queen of Versailles” (PG) will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland. Tickets are $7 ($5 for Space members and students with ID). For information, visit space538.org.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.


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