Directed by Lauren Greenfield
The Queen of Versailles has too many interesting details to count. It’s both absurd and tragic, a hyper-specific story of the 1% that morphs into one more universal. David and Jackie Siegel are a married couple who want to build the largest home in America, an estate modeled after the Palace of Versailles and the top three floors of a Las Vegas high rise. One of the most endearing yet unnerving moments comes later in the film, after the financial crisis of 2008, in which their real estate agent, hired to try and sell the estate for somewhere between $75-100 million, gives her pitch to the camera and repeatedly mispronounces ‘Versailles.’
It’s perhaps the most succinct example of how they borrow and commodify a certain type of beauty, distorting it into something rather tacky and misplaced. There is power in owning all of this, in other words, but with that they kill some of what they control, strip it of its meaning. Another example is when we see just how much the family hoards and how Jackie insists on having multiple of everything. Perhaps the most tragic moment comes in this sequence, when David lists off all the things she wants too many of and includes their children.
Gosh there’s so much here to deconstruct. The film opens with them during a photoshoot on a throne. The documentary is about their lifestyle, more than a bit disorienting, but it’s easy to see their pride in showing off this lifestyle. They’re so eager to invite the camera into their home, but things take a turn when the housing bubble bursts and David, labelled the “timeshare king” suddenly finds himself in steep financial trouble.
The unfinished mansion is put on hold, and David has to contend with giving up his company. An earlier moment shows us the behind the scenes of how the salesmen are taught to sell those timeshares, and it’s gross and hard to watch. They prey on people of a certain lower income who yearn to be rich, even just for a time. They get their 10% down payment and build the company on the promise that the rest will be paid out. When the crisis hits and their clients’ money dries up, well then so does the company. It’s an almost impossibly neat symbol for the recession as a whole.
The film is split between the two Siegels, covering home life with Jackie and the business side with David, who becomes increasingly irritable as the documentary carries on. They have a romance of sorts at the beginning, though the more than thirty year age difference between them suggests more than a few things about how they ended up together. Some of those ideas are reasonable while others are a bit unfair.
Jackie herself is a fascinating figure who details with pride her lower middle class upbringing. She sees herself as symbolic of the American Dream, someone who worked her way up (earning an Engineering degree at a time when not many women did), and whose present exorbitant wealth is justified. That their life had become a parody of wealth, well they don’t seem to notice.
They live in a bubble, and when that bubble bursts she is forced to evolve and get her hands dirty. Her growth within the film is actually quite noteworthy. She takes on roles and responsibilities that affluence had allowed her to delegate to an army of nannies, chauffeurs and house cleaners. In that process she becomes more human.
But at the same time David grows more distant, and it is legitimately heart-wrenching and maddening to watch how he treats her. Her daughter too will observe this and encourage her to stand up for him, but Jackie insists that stress makes you turn on the people closest to you.
Their story is filled with the details of some slapstick Hollywood comedy about someone who makes it rich, maybe something like Tom Hanks’ apartment in Big, when a child suddenly turned into an adult and thus furnished his apartment with the fantasy of a teenager.
But as the recession lingers and the army of help dwindles, the house shows its own signs of wear and tear. Dog poop isn’t cleaned up, a lizard literally starves to death, and the home just becomes a more claustrophobic accumulation of all the things they don’t need.
When the story onscreen ends we’re told that nothing has improved, but seven years later they have made back some of their wealth and still own the unfinished Versailles mansion.
There has been other tragedy to strike the family in the years since the documentary. There were lawsuits and alleged bullying that led to drug use. The Siegels are understandably not happy with how they were depicted, but nothing here suggests the depiction was out of step with reality. Then again this being a movie, where a lot is inevitably left on the cutting room floor, it’s easy to imagine ways in which any subject’s image could be distorted.
So in trying to be fair you have to wonder if maybe something is missing, even though it all seems right up there on the screen. This is how certain people live, but no matter how wealthy or poor you are, there’s always going to be things you don’t want to broadcast to the world, which makes their frustration understandable. How it was allowed, especially as things got so bleak, I’m not sure, but I’m incredibly curious. They let cameras in when things were going well, and they apparently allowed them to keep filming when sh*t hit the fan. That they didn’t know what might make it onscreen, well who knows what the thought process and conversation was off camera.
Up Next: Light of My Life (2019), Ad Astra (2019), Upstream Color (2013)