Review: ‘Queen of Versailles’ screens in Aspen
September 4, 2012
ASPEN – Most everyone has that one thing they would buy if they became wildly rich: the dream house, a long vacation, a Mickey Mantle rookie card. For Jackie and David Siegel, the subjects of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” the key acquisition, the ultimate luxury, seems to be obliviousness.
The film’s title is a reference to the house that the Siegels began building in the 1990s. Planned to be the biggest residence in America, with 30 bathrooms and 10 kitchens crammed into 90,000 square feet of prime Orlando living space, the house was modeled on Versailles, the French royal palace. But well before the house is started, the Siegels, each in their own way, have begun purchasing the cluelessness that insulates them from the world of the not-so-well-off.
“We never sought out to build the biggest house in the country. It just sort of happened,” Jackie says. In fact, she does have at least a partial explanation for how it “happened”: The previous house, at a mere 26,000 square feet and 17 bathrooms, had become too small for the family of 10, plus assorted nannies, servants and pets.
“We were bursting out at the seams,” Jackie said.
Jackie’s earlier life had been marked by accomplishment, even ambition. Recalling her childhood in Binghamton, N.Y., she noted that the only place to work in town was at IBM. When she says that the options there were limited to secretary or engineer, you fully expect her to opt out and say she was headed to Miami, to find a more glamorous life and snag a rich husband. But she gets an engineering degree and a job at IBM. After a few years, she tires of the work and becomes a model and then a beauty queen, winning the title of Mrs. World. Eventually she captures the affection of David Siegal, the twice-divorced billionaire. Siegel’s business? Time shares – selling people on the idea of buying luxury beyond their means.
Greenfield spent more than a decade with the Siegels – long enough, it seems, for the family to become so accustomed to having a camera in their home and in their faces that they no longer notice its presence. This isn’t reality TV; these people are being themselves, their oblivious selves. David boasts of being responsible for getting George W. Bush elected president; pressed for details, he demurs: Whatever he did, he says, “may not have necessarily been legal.” Jackie, an animal lover (of sorts), shows off the various deceased dogs she has had stuffed and exhibited around the house.
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To go with their cluelessness, there is a lack of taste. Jackie, in her early 40s, has succumbed to an excess of cartoonish plastic surgery. The family’s go-to restaurant is McDonald’s. If the Siegels have any attachment to the arts, books or conversation, it has been cut from the film.
The Siegels hint, ever so slightly, that they have some awareness that there is such a thing as lucky streaks coming to an end. A profligate shopper, Jackie says, “I think purses are a good investment. If you ever get in trouble, you can sell them on eBay.”
As far as we know, Jackie never opens an eBay account, but trouble sure hits. The time-share industry is founded on absurdly cheap credit, and when the financial crisis hits, it would be hard to find a business hit as quickly and severely as David’s Westgate Resorts. In a swirl of lawsuits, layoffs and threats from lenders, the Siegels go down hard. Eventually they put the half-finished “Versailles” up for sale for $75 million. The bank, looking for a quicker resolution, presses them to sell for $15 million.
The Siegels’ efforts to live in rapidly diminishing circumstances would be comical if they weren’t so real and if Greenfield didn’t play it so completely straight-up. Empty of servants, their house becomes filthy; dog crap on the floor is a recurring theme. At the rental-car counter at a New York airport, Jackie is crushed and amazed to learn that her car doesn’t come with a driver.
Eventually the family gets to bickering. David, who had never put much stock in family or friendships or a life of the mind, is overcome by grouchiness over his failure as a businessman.
“Do you get strength from your marriage?” Greenfield asks.
“No. It’s like having another child,” Siegal responds.
The Siegels don’t come off as nasty, lofty or even especially greedy. You don’t root for them – not even close. But they treat the hired help decently; in some ways, the Siegels seem like commoners. Even as their castle crumbles, Jackie professes her loyalty to and love of her husband, and there is sincerity to her line.
The thing that endures most, through fat times and lean, is the frightening obliviousness. Jackie keeps on shopping and treats herself to a $2,000 tin of caviar as a Christmas gift while David blames the bankers for turning off the dry spigot of money.
In the final sequence, with “Versailles” in foreclosure, Jackie confesses to the camera, “I guess I’ll have to watch the movie to find out what’s going on in my life.”
“The Queen of Versailles” shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House.