As home is built, dream crumbles
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 27, 2012
“This is the reverse of a rags-to-riches story. This is a riches-to-rags story.”
That’s the bemused voice of time-share entrepreneur and one-time billionaire David Siegel, who with his flamboyantly blond wife, Jackie, forms the spellbinding center of “The Queen of Versailles.” Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about the Siegels began as a chronicle of their profligate nouveau-riche lifestyle and their construction of America’s largest home -- a 90,000-square-foot pile near Orlando, unironically called Versailles.
But as Greenfield was filming David (age 74 in the film), Jackie (30 years his junior) and their sprawling family of eight children, devoted staff, countless animals and myriad friends and hangers-on, the financial meltdown intervened. What might have been a meditation on wealth, greed and consumerism became something else entirely. “The Queen of Versailles” turns out to be a portrait -- appalling, absorbing and improbably affecting -- of how, even within a system seemingly designed to ensure that the rich get richer, sometimes the rich get poorer.
Of course, everything’s relative. As “The Queen of Versailles” makes clear, at the height of David’s fortune he and Jackie took the term “living large” to its most literal, some might say obscene, extreme, decking out their Florida home in gilded geegaws that manage to look tacky even if they are priceless antiques.
When Jackie gives a friend a tour of the construction site of the new house -- which was supposed to have 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms and 11 kitchens -- the friend initially mistakes Jackie’s closet for a bedroom. Later, when David’s company, Westgate Resorts, experiences a credit crunch and bankruptcy looms, his buxom wife is forced to fly commercial -- a brand-new world for her passel of kids. “What’s my driver’s name?” she asks the car rental clerk at the airport, unaware that Hertz doesn’t provide chauffeurs.
The cluelessness, extravagance and just plain bad taste on display in “The Queen of Versailles” make the Siegels ridiculously easy targets at a time when many Americans would be grateful to live in the Siegel kids’ white-columned playhouse. (In fact, one of their servants does.) But Greenfield shows gratifying compassion for her subjects, especially Jackie, who may have issues with compulsive shopping (as seen in one horrifying excursion to Wal-Mart before Christmas), but also seems to have a sweet and generous heart: She has taken in a relative’s at-risk teenage daughter -- who provides some of the more mordant observations in the film -- and at one point quietly sends $5,000 to a childhood friend in need in Binghamton, N.Y. (For his part, David has sued Greenfield and the film’s distributors for what he says is an unfair portrayal of the financial state of his company.)
What’s more, Greenfield speaks with the staff members who see themselves as part of the Siegels’ extended family (as for David’s own grown children, that’s more complicated). When one of the nannies tearfully describes her own feelings of loss -- of her family of origin in the Philippines, as well as the ersatz but emotionally powerful pull exerted by the Siegels -- it’s clear that “The Queen of Versailles” won’t give viewers a simple heroes-and-villains story or satisfying morality tale of 21st-century economic comeuppance.
It would be so easy to demonize Jackie Siegel, but by the end of the film, with the animals dying, her house descending into unkempt chaos and her marriage fraying, viewers can’t help but feel confounded sympathy for a woman who so willingly bought into the American Dream at its most perversely distorted. Attention must be paid, even to those who so outlandishly overspent.
Contains nothing objectionable.