All hail “The Queen of Versailles.”
This irresistible documentary, about the effects of the 2008 economic collapse on a free-spending, über-wealthy couple, gives viewers an up-close-and-personal look at the gaudy weirdness that is the American Dream – in reverse.
“Versailles,” directed and produced by Lauren Greenfield (“Thin”), focuses on David and Jackie Siegel, who in 2006 broke ground on their 90,000-square-foot dream house in Windermere, Florida. They named it 'Versailles' and, upon completion, it would have been the largest private residence in the U.S.
Today, their hulking Versailles stands half-finished, a potent symbol for the nation’s economic collapse and the consequences on the housing market.
Greenfield began filming the couple in 2007, when they were still flying high (both metaphorically and literally, in a private jet). Early on, she asks David, now 76, why he is building such an extravagant family palace. “Because I can,” says the bluff, self-made Florida businessman, who founded and built Westgate Resorts, a vacation timeshare empire.
His third wife, Jackie, now 46, is the film’s titular queen. A buxom blond, she is a onetime computer engineer for IBM who grew up working class in Binghamton, N.Y. The couple met after she become a model, moved to Florida, nabbed the Mrs. Florida beauty queen title and had left her first husband. After linking up with David, she gave birth to seven children and also takes care of a teenage niece.
Jackie loves the camera, and the camera loves her. She’s vain, self-promoting and outrageously vulgar, a sort of all-American version of Ivana Trump. But she’s also plain-spoken, often funny and likable, even as she goes on yet another jaw-droppingly excessive shopping spree, gives a tour of her room-sized closets, or shows off the fluffy pet dog she had stuffed after its death and put on display in the couple’s home.
As the economy heads south, so do Westgate’s corporate fortunes. The couple is forced to economize, which means letting go of 19 household staff members and enrolling their kids in public school. David becomes ever more desperate and morose, snapping at Jackie and the kids and retreating to his study to sit behind piles of business documents. Jackie talks about having married David “for richer or for poorer” and making do with less. But even as she pushes a shopping cart around a Wal-Mart at Christmastime, she is still compulsively buying way more toys and bicycles than her children, who already have plenty of both, could ever use.
The big question here, of course, is why the Siegels ever said yes to Greenfield and why they allowed her keep her cameras rolling for three years. Her access is astonishing, and she uses it to let the Siegels hang themselves on their own vanity. Toward the end, David ruefully observes, “This is almost like a riches-to-rags story.” (He has since filed suit, complaining that the film depicts his company in “defamatory, derogatory and damaging ways,” according to a recent New York Times story.)
The appeal of “Versailles” is identical to that of watching an especially juicy episode of one of the moneyed iterations of “The Real Housewives.” You can’t believe people live and behave like this, and you get to feel superior in a 99 percent kind of way, knowing that if you yourself ever got to the Seigels’ rarified 1 percent level, you’d behave ever so much better.
Did I mention that Jackie lets her many yapping little dogs poop on the floor all over the house and leaves it for the staff to clean up?