In 2004 billionaire businessman David Siegel decided he wanted to build a new home, but let’s be perfectly clear before moving on: David Siegel’s idea of a new home differs from my idea of a new home, and probably yours too. Construction began on a house in Windemere, Florida which – when complete – will be the largest single-family home in the United States, covering an area of 90,000 square feet. And Siegel – a man who owns more than 20 hotels as part of his Westgate Resorts timeshare portfolio – knows a thing or two about building big: the design for this new abode is based on the Palace of Versailles in France.
The Siegel family are the subject of Lauren Greenfield’s smart documentary The Queen Of Versailles, which examines their home life both before and after the 2008 stock market crash and subprime mortgage crisis. It focuses slightly more on David’s wife Jackie, hence the title, and details the strain the financial crisis placed upon the family and the effect it had on their many employees. In doing so the documentary addresses the notion that the American Dream is often not all it’s cracked up to be, suggesting it is often manifest among the rich as nothing more than a flimsy, unstable sham.
Jackie, a former beauty queen, is David’s third wife. They met at a Miss America pageant, and together they have raised several children (they do mention how many in the documentary, and I think it’s seven, but I tried to confirm with a quick head count and got very confused indeed). Despite being somewhat materialistic Jackie is no bimbo airhead, and the documentary quickly points out that although she does not work any more, she is a qualified engineer and has had her share of tough minimum-wage jobs. David, meanwhile, is proud of his wealth and explains that it’s the product of many years of hard graft. His standing is high: one wall of his giant Las Vegas hotel is filled with photos of the timeshare magnate with a slew of A-list celebs and high flyers like Donald Trump, and with some clear regret he claims to have been responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House. How? He’s not telling, as it ‘may not necessarily have been legal’.
The pair are very much in love and both place a high value on quality time with the family. You could describe their tastes as gaudy and tacky, and David certainly isn’t shy about commissioning paintings of his family where they are dressed up like 18th Century European royalty or a group of Napoleon impersonators, but these are mere incidental details that provide the viewer with a degree of amusement. In the early, pre-2008 part of the documentary the family are helped by a crack team of nannies, cleaners and chauffeurs, and do their bit for society through fundraising dinners and other charitable actions, but when David’s business is hit hard the financial pressures are felt keenly. He suffers a series of foreclosures and must lay off most of his staff, including the majority of the domestic help. In terms of the home life this leads to the death of neglected pets, dogshit around the house and a huge strain on familial relationships.
To the credit of all involved, including the director, this cautionary tale of wealth and folly engenders a certain degree of sympathy for the Siegels. Sure, they may be filthy rich, but they appear to be reasonably down-to-earth and approachable, and they share the same kind of domestic issues as many other Americans: teenage strops and mini-rows about nothing in particular can often be heard over dinner. Jackie in particular comes across as being good-natured and kind. Granted in theory there’s a world of difference between a family threatened with foreclosure who have nowhere else to go and a family that still resides in a large Floridian mansion, but the absurdity of the financial crisis can be summed up in the sequence where David frets about his electricity bill from the comfort of a building the size of Southfork. The pressure is writ large across his face, and the documentary suggests it is gradually leading to estrangement from his family, though whether that’s actually true or the process of some clever editing is another matter. Jackie, meanwhile, prefers not to get involved in the financial side of things, and although she is gradually forced to make adjustments, she still spends money like it’s going out of fashion; a scene with a ludicrously-full trolley of Christmas presents juxtaposes with her apparent horror that a rental car from Hertz doesn’t come with a chauffeur.
This is a documentary that, with its clear framework of pre-crisis excess and post-crisis strain, wants the viewer to experience a certain degree of schadenfreude. However, to her credit, Greenfield keeps a respectful distance when the family’s problems increase, and when David has clearly had enough of the project he isn’t coerced into exploding on camera. It ends without fireworks when he seems to feel as if the process of making the documentary has become too much of a distraction, and all of his attention is required elsewhere. Also, when the rocky patch is struck in 2008, this balanced film repeatedly points out the effect the crisis has had on the employees of both Westgate and the Siegel family; it’s far from being a simplistic documentary that urges you to laugh at the misfortune of the mega-rich. (It’s a shame that the Siegels – who may have their own distinct taste but come out of the film quite well as a caring, genuine family – felt the need to sue Greenfield and others tied to the documentary for defamation after it was released. On March 13, 2014, it was ruled that the film was not defamatory and David Siegel and Westgate Resorts were ordered to pay the filmmakers $750,000.)
Despite the problems they face it would seem as though Mr Siegel will always have a deal or two up his sleeve that will allow the family to live out their days filthy stinking rich as opposed to filthy filthy stinking rich, and so it’s always in the back of your mind as a viewer that their story is ultimately different to the vast majority of sad financial crisis-related tales that will never actually be deemed worthy of a documentary film, and will actually lead to homelessness, bankruptcy, divorce and even suicide. We never find out just how bad it got for the Siegels, but while they remain in their existing mansion it’s difficult to have too much sympathy. Indeed, after a four-year hiatus, construction on the Versailles mansion resumed in 2012 and is expected to be completed in 2015. Just how bad did it get for a family that will shortly be living in a home with nine kitchens, 30 bathrooms, a baseball field and two movie theaters?
The Queen Of Versailles presents a well-reasoned argument against ever wanting to be this rich and is a timely reminder that the reach of the financial crisis is greater than most people think. It looks to me as though being this wealthy can lead to an awful existence at times, and this cautionary tale of massive excess smartly deconstructs the myth that money will bring you nothing but joy and happiness; it can in fact be a precarious business. The film is also great fun at times, particularly in the early moments where the proud Siegels show off their existing house with all its tacky faux-Renaissance sculpture, stuffed deceased pets and shiny marble surfaces. Jackie and David may enjoy the high life, but it’s nice to see that Jackie in particular has kept in touch with old friends from her roots and she has a commendable community-oriented mindset which is anything but selfish. Ultimately what I like about this documentary is that it isn’t a hatchet job; I ended up feeling a certain degree of admiration for Jackie, her brood and the Siegels’ likeable employees.
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Starring: David Siegel, Jackie Siegel
Running Time: 101 minutes