Film: The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles | Director Lauren Greenfield | Score: 6.3

When we first meet David and Jackie Siegel, they are quite literally sitting on a giant, gilt throne, decorated with ornate etchings and lovingly staring into each other’s eyes. By the end of Lauren Greenfield’s absorbing documentary, David, a former billionaire owner and CEO of the “world’s largest timeshare company” is sitting alone, slumped in an easy chair, the weight of the world seemingly pressing down on his shoulders.

At the beginning of film, at the height of their success in the mid-aughts, the couple were poised to leave their simple 26,000 square foot Orlando home, for a place that seemed more in keeping with their destiny — a 90,000 square foot palace built (roughly) as a facsimile of the French castle estate of Louis the 14th. Half completed at the time of the stock market crash of 2007, the resultant financial turmoil turned Siegel’s empire, including his newly opened grand 52-floor Vegas headquarters, on its head, sending the couple and their eight children on a downward spiral of financial pressure and the ever looming threat of foreclosure.

As it stands, the film is something of a test of your level of schadenfreude. So hateful are the couple with their gaudy paintings of each other astride a giant white mare, romance novel-muscles added for effect (when asked early on why he’s building the largest home in America, Siegel responds simply, “Because I could”), you almost can’t help but cheer when they fall on seemingly harder times. But there’s more at work here than simple 99-percenter glee. Much as it might seem a good thing for this couple to suffer the indignities of their outrageous hubris, there is enough in this portrait, to suggest they aren’t nearly as different from the rest of us as they might have thought.

Since David is remote and mostly locked in his office (“I go 24-7,” he growls), our touchstone is the self-absorbed and hopeless Jackie, a former Miss America, now a shopaholic, who can’t understand the dire financial circumstances her husband is in, and continues to treat their 26,000 starter home as a depot for all her collections of shoes, bags, children, pets, and coats. Botoxed and fake breasted, she’s a former trophy wife on the wrong side of 40, without a clue in the world how to live in the real world (one of the film’s priceless moments: when Jackie, forced to fly domestic for the first time in a decade, arrives at the Elmira airport to visit her family and tries to get a rental car at the Hertz counter, she innocently asks what her driver’s name will be).

With more money than they knew what to do with, they were the American dream wrought unchecked — all ego, and senseless waste (“I could care less about material things” David says, straight-faced). Without their endless capital and with the glory of the half-finished Versailles decomposing before our eyes (think Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu), they are revealed to be just as simpering and shallow as the rest of the would-be world beaters, who made their fortune on the backs of the financially helpless, displayed before the world as our pitted American soul, callow and subservient.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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