The Queen of Versailles:
Building America's Largest House

One of my favorite podcasts recently discussed Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles, which chronicles billionaires Jackie and David Siegel's project to build America's largest private home. The Siegels' planned 90,000 square feet home and estate, modeled (in excess at least) after the Palace at Versailles, had plans for 10 kitchens, 30 bathrooms, 2 tennis courts, a bowling alley, gym, skating rink and a full-sized baseball field.

Filmmaker Greenfield couldn't have guessed the turn her film, and the Siegels' lives, would take, with the nationwide financial crisis beginning in 2008 (the Siegels owned the world's largest timeshare company) imperiling the couple's fortune and the estate's future. In stark contrast to the opulence of the Siegels' lives at the film's outset, Greenfield follows the unraveling of the Siegels' fortune and, to some extent, their marriage.

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One of the most interesting points about the film made by the Slate Culture Gabfest crew was Stephen Metcalf's observation about how today's wealthiest families can limit their interactions with the masses by building traditionally public experiences into their own private homes. He gives the example of how generations ago even children from very wealthy families could be found at the local bowling alley with their peers, whereas today their family might have their own bowling alley at home.

If you've visited Hearst Castle or the Vanderbilt Mansion or other elaborate estates, you know that some element of this inverted public/private sphere has always been true, but I think Metcalf's observation can be applied more generally to all homes at nearly all income levels. While I can't image the day when I would have the funds (or the desire) to have a skating rink at home, I certainly see fewer movies at the theater thanks to our large flat-screen tv and souped up audio system. Home gyms (even just a treadmill), extensive outdoor play structures for kids, hot tubs, at-home saunas, pay-per-view movies and Netflix are all symptomatic of this on a much smaller scale than, say, a full-size baseball field, but all redefine the public-private sphere dynamic in some way.

This idea interests me quite a bit, as do many other elements that this highly praised film explores. The Queen of Versailles is in limited release. You can find a list of where it's playing here. Have any of you seen it yet? If so, what did you think? Worth leaving my cushy couch and home theater setup for?

• Learn more: The Queen of Versailles/Magnolia Pictures, official trailer, Slate Culture Gabfest's discussion of the film, New York Times film review.

(Images: Lauren Greenfield courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)