Movie Review: The Queen Of Versailles
July 18, 2012
Easily claiming a spot on my list of “Must See Festival Films” at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival last month is the documentary THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES which is now being released in theatres for all to see. As fascinating and funny with ridiculum and tacit socio-political comments as the documentary was when I first saw it, with the theatrical release, the film takes on a whole new light thanks to a lawsuit filed by the film’s subject, David Siegel, against filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and others, alleging, among others, defamation in the film’s depiction of Siegel, his company Westgate Properties, as well as a failure to provide “accurate” epilogue title cards with current facts. Adding another layer to the mix is that Siegel’s wife Jackie, who roped him into this documentary, is “good friends” with filmmaker Greenfield.
So, just who are is David and Jackie Siegel and what interest are they to us? David and Jackie Siegel have it all. A 26,000 square foot house in a Florida neighborhood that boasts Shaq and Tiger Woods as neighbors. A billion dollar company - Westgate Properties, the largest time share company in the United States - of which David is owner. A private plane. Rolls Royces. Limousines. Chauffeurs. A personal staff of 19. They and their 8 children want for nothing. A former Mrs. Florida (at a very young and obviously “physically enhanced” age), Jackie is the epitome of trophy wife, although she does claim undying love for husband David who is 30+ years her senior. They mingle with the rich and famous, jet around the world and according to David, allegedly “single-handedly” helped get George W. Bush elected in 2000. But despite all of this, it’s not enough. David and Jackie want more. They want “Versailles.”
Discontent with their already luxurious trappings, David and Jackie set out to build Versailles, a 90,000 square foot home which, on completion, will be the largest single family residence under one roof in America. With ten kitchens, a sushi bar, private ice-skating/roller rink, bowling alley, a 4000 square foot closet just for Jackie, and over 25 bathrooms, this is their dream home, a home that, according to Jackie, David has earned and deserves.
Having paid cash for the land and paying cash as they go with construction, when the documentary started filming, Jackie had already purchased furnishings and trappings including $5 million in marble from China and enough ugly antiques to make one gag. But then 2008 roles around. While Jackie’s been playing with Versailles, David has been playing in Vegas, tying up all the family and corporate money in his own crown jewel in the Westgate empire on the Vegas Strip. But with a business like time shares, cash flow comes from the time share owners making monthly payments and when they don’t have money, you don’t get money. And like a house of cards in the wind, the Westgate and Siegel empire comes crashing down.
Lauren Greenfield’s initial purpose of the documentary was to focus on consumerism and specifically, wealth, in the United States. Admitting that she “ didn’t even know what David’s business was. I knew he was rich and was a billionaire”, Greenfield came into the process through Jackie. First meeting Jackie Siegel in 2007 while doing a photo shoot for Donatella Versace, Siegel was at the grand opening of the new Versace store in Beverly Hills. “[Greenfield] made a picture of [Siegel’s] purse that ended up in Time magazine and that was kind of how the relationship started. When she told me she was building the biggest house in America, I was interested in it as an extension of that work but specifically as a look between the house and the American Dream, and the house as the kind of ultimate expression of our success and identity, and the way that house had gotten bigger and bigger.”
But with the economic crash, Greenfield’s focus with THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES changed as it gave her “an opportunity to look at both the virtues and flaws of the American Dream and the virtues and flaws of Jackie and David as characters who were self-made people. . .It started out as this look in a way of excess but what always drew me to the story is Jackie’s kind of All-American quality and her accessibility and in a way, how she represented that American Dream that we all grew up learning and what you would make of yourself one day . . . As the story turned, it became clear that it was much bigger than a story about a family and it was not even a story about rich people. It was really an allegory about the over-reaching of America and about the housing crisis. Their story was really a kind of super-sized version of what happened to so many Americans.”
Admitting to having what one has to describe as free-rein, from an initial photo session to moving in to the Siegel mansion with a crew of 4 or 5, “The access that developed over time...is much more intimate. There’s no kind of posturing or barriers. Jackie’s not wearing make-up and she’s got no shoes on. The access deepened over time. Jackie and I got very close over the course of making it and she enjoyed sharing her life.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the Siegels were forced to put the uncompleted Versailles on the market that Greenfield first realized that her story on consumerism and wealth “was going in a different direction. The mood in the house was completely different. That was the middle of 2010. . . I understood about their having to give up this dream is really about what we all went through.” This is also the time that Greenfield got interested in David’s time share business, noting that “time share was an incredible symbol for the housing business.” This also opened up new avenues of exploration into the character and essence of the Siegels.
With the documentary now focusing on billionaires going broke, with over 200 hours of footage shot over a three-year period, we see first-hand not only just how clueless and out of touch with the world and themselves this family is, but how irresponsible, hypocritical and selfish. Cringe-worthy is watching the house be overrun with dogs and dog poop which, with the household staff let go, no family member will pick up; dead pets in cages that have died due to lack of food and water because according to the children, “no one would take me to the pet store to get food”. Even worse is Jackie’s continual shopping and hoarding. Don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine needing to ever buy three sets of Scrabble for myself and three “Operation” board games. Disrespect runs rampant with Jackie and the children towards David as they can’t understand his frustration at coming home to find the air conditioner on “high”, the front door open, and every light in the mansion turned on with no one in the rooms.
Pathetically comical is Jackie’s whining about the governmental bailout and how it was supposed to go to “the common people...us.” And while David bemoans the banks and lenders who won’t continually fuel his empire, Greenfield captures the true wear and tear that worry casts on a man as we see David Siegel visibly age, turning into a tired old man over the course of filming. Uniquely and objectively captured is David Siegel who, as opined by Greenfield, “[W]as on both ends of this. He was both victim and perpetrator. He was selling mortgages to people, middle class people, working class people, who wanted an aspirational luxury and he was also reaching for that luxury himself; ultimately, a luxury he couldn’t afford. And was beholden to the banks. He borrowed lots of money to build the biggest time share that has ever been built with the brightest sign that had ever been in Vegas.”
Outlandish scenes like Jackie in a chauffeur-driven limousine at a McDonald’s drive-through (forced to tighten their belts due to their new economic situation, she has apparently relegated herself to the $1 menu, yet didn’t get rid of the limo), or wearing a fur coat out on a speeding yacht basking in the sunlight, or the put-on “dumb blonde act” (Jackie supposedly has a degree in Engineering and according to Greenfield is “really smart”, which if true, belies any truth in the stereotypical dumbness we see), spurs the “unwitting” comedic lunacy of the situation. But perhaps one of the most outrageous moments is Jackie going home to her roots in middle class America in New York. Forced to get a rental car as the family budget won’t allow for a limo, she has the audacity to stand at the car rental counter and ask where her driver is. Believing this to be staged from the moment I first saw the scene, I had to ask Greenfield about whether or not it was done for the camera (as I suspect many things were). Avoiding a direct answer, her reply was only “That’s what she said.” Elaborating on that specific scene, Greenfield regales, “It’s funny, because when I watched [the film] with her a couple weeks ago, during that scene her luggage comes on the luggage thing, and her comment was, ‘I can’t believe I checked that Louis Vitton luggage.’” But as I pressed further, noting that as we watch some of Jackie’s reactions and comments, one must ask, did she intentionally stage this level of stupidity for the camera. Jumping to her friend’s defense, Greenfield notes, “She’s certainly not stupid. She’s really smart. That’s the thing that’s so surprising.” I’ll leave it to you to make your own determination.
Now a bone of contention, according to David Siegel, “[Greenfield] didn't hesitate to orchestrate unrealistic over-the-top scenes for entertainment purposes even when they vastly distorted day-to-day life”, something which is also up for debate in the pending litigation.
Thanks to some face time for “minor characters” intertwined with the lives of the Siegels, such as one of the 19 household staff and nannies who does survive budget cuts by the Siegels and who remains with them, albeit living in an over-sized dollhouse playhouse in the backyard (actually the size of a studio apartment). Notable also is “Cliff, the limo driver who speculates and buys 19 homes and loses them all and going into bankruptcy and having that trauma of foreclosure.” The comments and ruminations by these minor players are not only candid, but telling.
Described by Greenfield as individuals who “feel that their lives are significant and important” Jackie and David Siegel and their rags-to-riches-to-rags story (and as a current July 2012 post-script , back to riches, with construction now resumed on Versailles and Westgate more profitable than ever) is living proof that truth is stranger than fiction.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES - let them eat cake...or at least McDonald’s value menu.
Directed by Lauren Greenfield.