Film Review – The Queen of Versailles
When the wealthy are profiled in the media, it is often to show the quirkiness of their personalities—seeing them act like they are normal even when their world is so different from regular people is interesting. We laugh at the ridiculousness of how they act, but also have envy and admiration for what they have. Director Lauren Greenfield wanted to capture that dynamic when she started filming the Siegel family for her documentary The Queen of Versailles, and she ended up getting much more than she expected.
When we are first introduced to the Siegel family, they are on top of the world. David Siegel, a self-made man, is the founder of Westgate resorts. He is a billionaire, has just opened the largest building in Las Vegas, and is now building the largest home in America, inspired by the palace of Versailles. His wife, Jackie Siegel, a former beauty queen and twenty years younger than her husband, is equally enjoying life. She has eight children (one is her sibling’s kid whom she has taken in), several pets, and is a shopaholic.
While it just screams cliché—the older, rich man marrying a trophy wife, being excessive, etc.—life takes an unexpected turn when the market crashes. People aren’t buying timeshares anymore. The banks are not giving out money, so the building in Vegas is in debt. And “Versailles,” which isn’t even completed, is being put on the market. As we see the life of this rich couple fall apart, Greenfield adapts quickly to work with this new situation and creates a balanced observation of the Siegels’ new lifestyle, going from a point where they are so out of touch we just want to laugh to seeing the actual hardships that they must deal with.
Jackie is still a shopaholic, and she sounds ridiculous when having to take a commercial plane or not having a driver for her rental car. This is contrasted with her trying to do things for the local community. She tries to help out a friend back home who is in trouble as well. David is beside himself with sadness and a deep desire to get them out of the problem himself. There is a pride in him that is both admirable and, at other times, comes off as just stubborn. He also becomes distant from his family, with the pressure getting to him. In him we see the darker side of success. This distant issue is not new, as evidenced from other interviews. It is clear that he is all work and always has been. This crisis pushes it into overdrive, and the pressure to succeed is easily his whole life.
Besides the husband and wife, there are discussions with the nanny, the chauffeur, and David’s oldest son from his first marriage, now a senior partner in the company. They provide a nice counterbalance to the lifestyles of the Siegel family. They bring up their own hardships, financial and personal, and all without making light of what is happening to the Siegels. These stories go from the extreme of the nanny, who came from nothing and is supporting her family that is still worse off than her, to the son, who is still wealthy but is closer to what is happening because of the crash. He sees the workers being laid off, and he is losing the thing that keeps him closest to his father: work. These segments give a more rounded view of economic problems, without becoming too broad and getting away from our core subject.
The Siegels’ lives are now very different, and how they relate to each other and with others has changed, as well. They can no longer be freewheeling spirits, yet deep down, that is still what they are. This lifestyle is in them, and they cannot give it up easily. Nor do they. While they are in trouble, they still have their large mansion they lived in before and have a limo and can put on parties. What the exact situation is is unclear. David will not reveal everything and Jackie has not been informed of the complete nature of their situation. This causes some interesting tensions that end up being like any couple worried about money, just to the extreme.
This film isn’t asking us to feel sorry for rich people, nor is it here to ridicule. It does what all good documentaries do and just allows the information and people to be presented and lets us make up our own minds. The Siegel family are people and they are suffering—nowhere near the level that some other people are, but still, they are people suffering. In these situations we get to see what people do at their darkest, and this family is doing what all others are doing as well—trying to cope.
Final Grade: B+