“The very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “are different from you and me.” One thing photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield accomplishes with her latest documentary is to give us good reason to be glad that’s the case. For all their paper billions, the subjects of this picture are among the unhappiest people I’ve ever seen on screen.
The Queen of Versailles isn’t the family portrait David and Jackie Siegel signed on for. He’s a seventysomething Florida time-share mogul. She’s a surgically enhanced former beauty contestant 30 years his junior. When Greenfield met the pair in 2007 and expressed an interest in filming them, they jumped at the chance. The two were in the process of building the largest residence in the United States. What better way to immortalize their rise from humble beginnings?
There’s no place like home. At least not like the Siegels’: Modeled after the French palace of the film’s title, its plans called for 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens, a sushi bar, two movie theaters, a bowling alley, a wing for their eight kids, a spa, two tennis courts, three swimming pools, an ice-skating rink and a full-size baseball field. A 90,000-square-foot monument to themselves.
Then 2008 happened. The economic collapse hit David Siegel’s business, Westgate Resorts, hard. Faster than you can say “subprime mortgage,” all his properties were underwater, and construction on his dream home ground to a halt. Siegel attempts to persuade the viewer that greedy bankers suckered him into borrowing cheap money he couldn’t repay. It’s an ironic gambit, considering that the promise of cheap money is the same one Siegel’s sales force made to his customers for years.
Who can say what story this picture would have told if fate hadn’t provided that twist? It did, though, with cameras rolling, and the result is a can’t-look-away cross between a Bergman drama and a “Real Housewives” spin-off.
As her increasingly distant husband broods over his reversal of fortune, Jackie continues to spend like there’s no tomorrow, hamming it up for the cameras as though auditioning for her own reality series. Little by little, Greenfield’s cautionary tale turns into “The Jackie Siegel Show.”
I lost count of Siegel’s pants-on-fire moments, scenes she attempts to pass off as real life that were clearly staged. There’s the Christmas shopping trip to Walmart. (The pretense is she’s trying to be more budget conscious. The punch line is she buys so much junk it takes a motorcade of SUVs to haul it home.) Then there’s the time she goes through a McDonald’s drive-through in her limo, or the trip to her hometown where she asks the clerk at a Hertz counter for the name of her “driver.” Siegel grew up in a middle-class home in that very town. Who does she think she’s kidding?
And why does she expect audiences grappling with economic hardships to be amused by the spectacle of her conspicuous and clueless consumption? Her husband wasn’t. By the time the credits roll, Greenfield has chronicled the collapse of not just Siegel’s business but, for all practical purposes, his marriage. The tragedy is so thick, it’s like Shakespeare with Botox.
David Siegel ended up so ticked off he sued Greenfield for making the movie and Magnolia Pictures for distributing it, claiming its portrayal of Westgate’s troubles is misleading. I guess those 7000 employees he laid off are just imagining they don’t have jobs.
The Queen of Versailles has much to offer — a rare glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and freaky and a case study in denial as colossal as its subjects’ empty castle. And, last but not least, confirmation that money — even mountains of it — can’t always buy happiness.