By Don Simpson | March 5, 2012
Director: Lauren Greenfield
In 2007, when director Lauren Greenfield began documenting the lives of a 74-year-old billionaire and his 43-year-old trophy wife, we can only imagine that she planned on revealing to us the excessively extravagant lifestyle of these modern day Florida billionaires. David and Jackie Siegel had just started building a 90,000-square-foot estate (inspired by Versailles) — you cannot get much more excessive or extravagant than that! — which is probably what prompted them to appear on Greenfield’s radar. The completed property would have been the largest single-family home in the United States…but then the 2008 global economic crisis happened. Suddenly, David’s Westgate Resorts timeshare empire — which was built upon a fragile foundation of cheap bank loans — was in jeopardy of financial destruction. Development of the palatial abode screeched to a halt. Greenfield’s plan to film from the lavish vantage point of the top 1% of America was turned upside down. Suddenly, The Queen of Versailles transforms into a surreal riches to rags story, one that is much more akin to a plot from a satirical Frank Capra or Preston Sturges screenplay than a documentary. Yes, sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction; and sometimes documentary filmmakers stumble upon pure cinematic gold.
The fact that David and Jackie were attempting to recreate Versailles in Florida seems all too perfect for this story. Jackie is essentially a modern day reincarnation of Marie Antoinette, totally oblivious to the real world troubles that are brewing outside of the gates of her home. After their financial hardships begin, Jackie still cannot curtail her spending; all the while, David transforms into a penny-pinching Scrooge. Those two extremes do not make for a happy marriage. Greenfield’s interviews with David and Jackie become increasingly intimate and personal as The Queen of Versailles evolves into a complex portrait of a family that finds itself teetering on the brink of emotional and financial collapse.
Greenfield’s study of extravagant excess somehow transforms the Siegels’ current 26,000 square-feet home into a cramped and cluttered maze of children, nannies, animals, stuff and… dog feces? Yes, David and Jackie are so bad off that they are unable pay someone to pick up dog feces. Greenfield seems mesmerized by the feces — I lost track of how many times random piles of poop appear on camera — and rightly so; even most underprivileged families in the United States would not allow dog feces to sit on the floor of their home. But, then again, we are observing as David and Jackie’s lives are metaphorically — and quite literally — in the shitter. All they can do now is wait for some corporate welfare to trickle down from the Wall Street bankers and hope that it is enough to save them.
Jackie was once a model and beauty queen, but she is not your typical blonde bimbo, even though her fashion sense and exaggerated breasts scream otherwise. In fact, Jackie is a very strong-willed and intelligent woman (but one might claim that she lacks common sense). She chose not to put her Engineering degree to use because she did not want to waste her life away in an office. She also comes from a very modest upbringing (that explains her trailer trash tendencies, specifically her hankering for McDonald’s!); Jackie married into extreme wealth, she was not born into it. Despite her history, what seems to scare Jackie the most is that her eight (seven biological) kids might have to go to college and work for a living. Despite her rather sympathetic portrayal, it is very difficult to support Jackie on that point.
In retrospect, it is quite difficult to rustle up any sympathy for David and Jackie — though Greenfield makes it nearly impossible for us to not feel a little bit sorry for them. (Greenfield might be rethinking this sympathetic approach now that David Siegel filed a libel lawsuit against her, claiming that the press release for The Queen of Versailles wrongfully implied he had gone bankrupt.) Greenfield cleverly models The Queen of Versailles on reality television and she utilizes the tried and true tropes of that genre to tug at our emotions. That said — I harbor an unfathomable amount of disdain for most reality television programs, but found The Queen of Versailles to be light-years more intelligent and intoxicating. If The Queen of Versailles does crossover into the reality television audience, I can only hope that it helps elevate the standards of the genre.