The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield, showing at the Criterion, 86 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 498-2500, bowtiecinemas.com; Bethel Cinama, 269 Greenwood Ave., Bethel, (203) 778-2100, bethelcinema.com, and Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
It's true, the very rich are different than you and me. Sometimes the very rich just have 19 times as much stuff as you and I would have. They've got closets the size of our houses. They've got squads of nannies, maids and drivers. They've got terrible paintings of themselves in gaudy historical costume. They own yachts and private jets. Sometimes they sit on thrones. Or at least the super-rich Siegel family does. The Siegels are featured in The Queen of Versailles, a documentary about the relationship between husband David, 74 at the time of the film and the founder and president of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time-share company in America, and his wife Jacqueline, a former model and Mrs. Florida winner who was 43 at the time the film was made.
The film is also about the couple's efforts to build the largest home in America, a 90,000-square-feet monstrosity modeled on the architecture of Louis XIV and the palace of Versailles. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield happened to be making the film as the economic crisis of 2008 unfolded along with the implosion of the housing market. America's money woes increased, implicating mortgage-backed securities and other house-of-cards financial products. Easy credit evaporated, as did the market for Siegel's time-share properties in Las Vegas and Florida.
The Siegels are left having to try and sell their unfinished mega-mansion, hoping to unload it for a fraction of its supposed value. But there aren't multi-millionaires lining up to buy someone else's tacky and partially completed vanity dream home.
The Queen of Versailles is one of those documentaries that at first appears to be a trainwreck of voyeurism and condescending judgment about the bad taste, poor parenting skills, egomania and delusions of grandeur of the Siegels. But it turns out, those are areas where the very rich are just like many of us. The Siegels just happen to have more cash to misspend, a bigger megaphone with which to trumpet their inflated sense of self to the world. They have a film crew following them around capturing every lapse of good sense.
The 1 percenters are an easy target. And there's a lot to loathe about the Siegels, particularly David, the all-business 20-year-old-beauty-queen-loving septuagenarian. Scenes of him flirting with Miss America contestants are gross. As is his smug assertion that he was "personally" instrumental in getting George W. Bush elected president. "It may not necessarily have been legal," he says with a grin.
Siegel and his time-share business ended up looking so bad in the film that he filed a defamation lawsuit, still pending, against filmmaker Greenfield and the film's distributors for the portrayal. Among the most damning details in the film is the account that Siegel's adult son and business partner Richard, the child of Siegel's first marriage, gives of his childhood. While his father was a millionaire, Richard says, he and his sister and their mother were dirt poor, having to scavenge for food.
If David Siegel comes off as business-obsessed to the point of heartlessness, or at least obliviousness, Jacqueline, his young trophy wife, retains her humanity and even some charm. The film attempts to portray her as something of a pet-obsessed hot-pants-wearing freakshow. She obviously enjoys being filthy rich. (She says the reason they want to build their enormous house is that her "husband deserves it.") But she seems to manage okay and not to be a totally callous tyrant, even if she farms out the parenting of her children to a crew of Filipina nannies and says some embarrassingly stupid things. She sends $5000 to a high school friend back in upstate New York who's in danger of losing her house to foreclosure. And takes in a troubled niece from a fractured home.
The Queen of Versailles doesn't make the life of a mogul seem very glamorous. It shows the hardships that come with money. The hardships that come with losing it. The interpersonal, familial and psychic wreckage. You'll feel like the rich are icky. You'll feel a little icky yourself — implicated in making real life into a spectacle — for gazing and maybe snorting at this family as things fall apart, even if they were asking for it.