The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Meet the Siegels, the subjects of a Sundance-winning documentary, The Queen of Versailles. David is a real estate magnate in his 60s. Jackie is his 40-something wife, a former model, and together they have eight children. It would be an understatement to call the Siegels rich. These people are stupid rich. These are people that have so much money they don’t know what to do with it, which is why David and Jackie set out to build the biggest home in the nation. After the subprime mortgage flameout of 2008, the Siegels took a major hit in their resources. But not everyone sees worldwide economic disaster as a wake-up call. Some just keep on shopping.
The Queen of Versailles is one captivating clinical study in overreaching. In the wake of the financial collapse, politicians were eager to lambaste the poor who bought mortgages they couldn’t afford (the better to shield blame from their friends in the banking cabal). Let this film show you that even the super rich can have trouble living within their (enormous) means. I won’t lie; part of the appeal of this documentary is the continual shock of the wasteful extravagance the Siegel clan called normal. How opulent was their lifestyle? Well their 26,000-square foot home only had 17 bathrooms, so you can see why the Siegels would feel the need to build the biggest home in the nation. This 90,000-square foot fortress was modeled after the actual French palace in Versailles, so you know, it’s going to be modest. It was designed to have 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, an ice-skating rink, and two movie theaters (for counter programming?). The large stain glass window itself cost $250,000. The total cost of the project: more or less $100 million. I repeatedly laughed to myself in disbelief at the untamed lavishness on display. I confess it’s hard for me to put myself into this vapid mindset. I just see all hat money and think of all the better things it could have been spent on. How many children could be vaccinated with $100 million? How many people could have been bought out of slavery with that money? How many low-income students could have afforded college? The kicker, what really gets my ire, is that is was all unnecessary. The Siegel family already lived in a giant mansion. Did they have to live in a giant-er mansion? When is enough just enough?
By the end of the movie you won’t know whether to scorn the Siegels or feel sorry for them. I’m at a loss myself. There’s a certain level of schadenfreude watching a riches-to-rags story, watching the wealthiest among us find their world of easy money come crumbling down. But then you start thinking what these people are going to do now without the luxury of wealth. The Siegel children are horrified when at one point dad declares they will likely have to go to college and, gasp, earn their own living. And if these kids have to fend for themselves, it doesn’t take a genius to get a sense of what the future holds. At one point, the adopted niece discovers her pet lizard is dead. Jackie harangues her about not taking care of it. “No one takes me to the pet store!” the niece declares. “But why didn’t you at least give him water?” Jackie reasonably asks. The niece responds dead-serious: “That wouldn’t have made a difference.” And these people are going to have to fend for themselves! The horror that waits. The entire family has been wrapped up in a cocoon of wealth, insulated from the real world, and now has no real sense of how to navigate this new, blunt reality.
Adding to the sadness is the dawning realization that David Siegel cannot stand his wife. Jackie is wife number three, and a former pageant winner/model, so we all know what stood out to the older businessman. Even his kids know. Late in the film, when the weight of creditors bears down on him, David sequesters himself in his private room, shows no interest in his wife or his children, and confides to his dog that the two of them could just run away together. With the comforts of wealth stripped away, and Jackie reaching, gasp, middle age, it becomes readily apparent that David’s waning affection is not going to reverse.
But the movie belongs to Jackie, the titular queen, and she is easily the most fascinating figure in the film. It’s easy to dismiss the bleach-blonde woman with huge fake breasts and a shiny, fake life of glamor. Is she a ditz? She got a degree in computer engineering. Impressive. Is she a gold digger? She cannot help herself when it comes to buying, whether it’s at Southerby’s or Wal-Mart. Is she even a good mother? She does admit that she would not have had nearly as many children if it weren’t for the ever-present nannies. What I saw was a woman who knew she could taste the good life and then became afraid of being kicked to the curb. David is happy to fund her personal projects and let her splurge on posh buys, but for how long? Her body, impressive though top-heavy, is aging, and her model looks are naturally fading into a comfortable middle age. Such is life. However, you can tell that Jackie is terrified. Mountains of money acted like a buffer between her and her husband. That’s gone now. He keeps joking that when Jackie gets old he’s going to dump her for two twenty-year-olds. Even when the family is downsizing, Jackie makes sure to fit in her beauty stops (botox, tanning, etc.). Some might charge the woman with being toxically narcissistic, but I think that’s too simple. Her looks are her meal ticket and now they are betraying her. She knows the type of man she married, and they both seem to be failing to live up to expectations. Now that the shiny distractions are removed, they have to live with one another as-is, and as-is doesn’t really work for men of wealth and ego.
Director Lauren Greenfield (Thin) spent three years documenting the Siegel clan. She must have done something right with her finished product since David Siegel filed a lawsuit against the movie and Greenfield. The suit argues the film damages David Siegel’s credibility by positing that his company is on the verge of financial ruin. His company, Westgate Resorts, sold timeshares in the same kind of high-pressure sales tactics that lead to people buying things they cannot afford. After the 2008 meltdown, guess what? People couldn’t afford their own homes let alone a vacation timeshare. When the bankers freeze the easy money, Siegel and his company cannot pay their bills and have to downsize, sell offices, and foreclose major properties, including their signature Vegas resort. It’s hard to imagine that Greenfield went out of her way to portray a gloomy outlook on Siegel’s company when the facts are pretty black and white. He lost his access to money and lost assets he couldn’t afford any longer. The litigation just seems like desperate spin against the obvious and insurmountable.
From a documentary standpoint, not all of the storylines and messages stick together. You can tell Greenfield wants to use the Siegel clan as an allegory for the American consumerist culture. See, the movie says, even the rich overreached too. But beyond the audience feeling superior to such careless individuals, I don’t think this works. The movie never fails to be fascinating but practically in a car-crash sort of manner, as we vicariously lavish in the pornography of riches. Certainly Greenfield never condones the lifestyles of her subjects, not like the insipid, soul-deadening, vain Real Housewives reality franchise on Bravo (in a surprise to nobody, Bravo has snapped up the broadcast TV rights to Versailles). There’s plenty of derisive laughter to be had throughout, but you do wish that Greenfield had pushed further. Comparing the Siegel’s lives to their live-in nannies seems to be given superficial significance. These immigrant women bust their asses raising the Siegel brood and one of them literally lives in one of the kid’s super sized dollhouses. She literally lives in a former dollhouse. Choke on that metaphor. Then there’s a limo driver who’s had to cut back to make ends meet, but really the stars of the film are Jackie and David. Too often the film seems caught up in the “look how disgustingly rich they are” direction. This is a compelling documentary, to be sure, but it can lapse into an extended Lifestyles of the Super Rich and Famous.
David Siegel makes a very apt observation in the film. “Everyone wants to be rich,” he says. “If they can’t be rich, they want to feel rich.” Of course David Siegel’s company made a hefty profit from making people feel rich at their resorts. Everyone wanted to partake in the same illusion, the same false belief that the good times were never going to end. The Queen of Versailles is alarming, fascinating, and beyond belief at several points (why do these people keep getting more pets they won’t care for?). You’ll feel a general sense of moral superiority but that’s the movie’s weakness as well. The super rich are characterized as extravagantly wasteful, and while this is a notion that will not break any headlines, the movie too often dips into schadenfreude that doesn’t elevate the material. We’re left with the sinking impression that this clan is stuck in their ways and ultimately doomed. Since the film’s release, David Siegel has reclaimed his foreclosed super mansion, and now he’s brought the asking price down to a more reasonable $65 million. It seems that you can lose millions and still not gain a lick of sense and perspective.
Nate’s Grade: B