director Lauren Greenfield
The Queen of Versailles is an excellent, fascinating, compelling documentary about money, greed, excess, and ultimately what all that does to a person. It’s an exemplar of capitalist values.
As the movie opens, the film-makers are following Jackie and David Siegel (the latter is the self-made king of time-shares) and their brood of eight children in their decadent, uber-rich South Florida world and their plan to build the largest family home in the United States. This is their Versailles, vaguely modeled after the Palace at Versailles, which they had taken in during a recent vacation. This mammoth structure is to be built simply because they “can.” And this grotesquerie of indulgence is what the Siegels are proud to shout about, be filmed about, and could well have been just another missive about the lives of the rich and moderately famous.
Only 2008 comes around, and the housing market crash that brought down world economies hits the time-share business where it counts. Siegel’s model of rampant growth on the feed of “cheap money” leaves them high and dry when the banks no longer offer subprime mortgages to anybody with a pulse. And while the empire threatens total collapse (or moderation and loss-cutting), the family is thrown into a whole different light.
Jackie Siegel, with her Botoxed face and massive bazooms, 30 years junior to David, looks sort of right out of central casting as bimbo trophy wife. And through one thing and another sort of embodies that, but what makes The Queen of Versailles fascinating is how perspective shifts as the Siegel’s fortunes change. She was never “a dumb blond”, having gotten an engineering degree and a job at IBM straight out of school, but when she ditched the desk job for a modeling career and wealthy husbands in Florida, she seems to have adopted more than just the lifestyle. She’s shown at different times as how out of touch with the world she is, hiring a limo driver to take her through McDonald’s or flying coach for the first time in ages and asking at the Hertz rental car counter what their driver’s name would be. But when the chips are down, she tries to rally round her family, kids, husband, old friends. And she is a much more resilient and real person than certain perspectives allow.
David Siegel, not so much. He is all about money and big houses, sexy young wives, and when things have gotten tough, as he notes “their riches to rags story” is not one he cares for. He shuts out Jackie and the kids and ultimately calls for an end to the picture. It’s the one small weakness with the film. The story doesn’t seem to have reached conclusion.
It’s as if ultimate money corrupts ultimately, to bowdlerlize a phrase. David has been at it too long. He’s not utterly lacking in self-awareness. He states that he and his company became addicts to the “cheap money”, that if he had saved money and not over-expanded, he might have been okay even in the downturn. He even brags about personally getting George W. Bush elected in 2002, and how maybe that was not a good thing. But he’s never been a father to his children, though he has fathered many. His adult son is a business partner, not a friend, someone who only knows his father through the wealth that he has shared with him.
An interesting vantage is brought by Jackie’s niece, a teenager who came from a poor background, whose bedroom was a basement with a dirt floor. Her injection into the family at first helps her cousins see contrast to their lives of plenty. But by the end of the film, the girl admits that once you can have everything you want, it changes you and it’s hard to stop wanting everything. Her small asides speak the moral of the film.
Jackie, facing the loss not just of their never-finished Versailles but of their present-day mansion, is willing (if questionably able) to downsize her life. She turns her focus on her husband and her kids. She’s grown useless in having an army of maids and nannies, can’t do much of anything herself, which is especially evident when the army of nannies and maids are let go. She’s an addict herself, as shown in a madcap Wal-Mart shopping spree where the poor nanny tries to keep her from spending insanely. (Returning with a brand new bicycle, it is shown being placed in a garage that already has about 30 bicycles in it.) Also as she cites the reason that she had 7 children — she never would have if she had to care for them herself, but since she had nannies, she just kept on having them!
Absolute money has turned her into an image of the trophy wife bimbo with no sense of the meaning of money or anyone else’s reality. She seems very willing to brave the world beyond her delusion. It’s not clear if she will really ever have to or even if she really could. And since she’s never really had to mind her children, can she be a mother to them or all they spoiled beyond measure? (We don’t see most of the children in too much detail to make such assumptions).
It’s a fascinating portrait with far more angles to glean than one little write-up would do for. It’s so apt and timely, though, it seems like an excellent document of its era, will fit well into potential perspectives that time will allow as history begins to tell its story. It’s one of the most interesting, thought-provoking documentaries that I’ve seen in a long time.
Highly recommended. For all.