The Queen of Versailles was one of the most talked about films at this year’s True/False Film Festival, here in Columbia, MO. The documentary film centers around the Siegel family who exemplifies how a rags to riches life can lead to insanely conspicuous over consumption. The film primarily follows time share resort mogul David Siegel’s third wife, 43-year-old-Jacqueline “Jackie” Siegel as she runs her family of 8 children and live in staff of 23 in the family’s 26,000 square foot home while their 90,000 square foot home is under construction. At the same time, 76-year-old-David struggles to save his company from the economic downturn.
At the start of the film it’s quite obvious that this is a documentary about an obscenely wealthy family building America’s largest home, but it quickly becomes a documentary about the effect the economic down turn had on people whose lives were completely centered around consumption. Even David Siegel’s business is centered around selling consumption to other people. Siegel owns Westgate Resorts, which he claims in the film is the largest time share resort company in the world with a whopping 20 resorts under it’s umbrella. It sells the time shares to people who Siegel admits can’t afford them and who are allowed to put as little as 10% down and take out a loan for the other 90% of the cost of a time share. This is led Westgate into trouble when the economy tanked, the ability to get loans disappeared, and the company still owed $240 million on their newly constructed resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Meanwhile we learn Jackie’s backstory; a woman with a lower middle class upbringing who worked her way through college to become an engineer at IBM before divorcing her abusive husband and entering into the modeling industry to become Miss Florida where she meets David Siegel, becoming his third wife. It quickly becomes clear not only that Jackie and David were building their 90,000 square foot because they could but that every aspect of Jackie’s life revolved around acquiring things just because she can.
At point in the film Jackie notes that growing up, she never thought she would ever have more than one child, but once she found out she could have a nanny, she didn’t see any reason to stop having children, leading to the 7 that she had with David. When she’s not toting her children around in her massive SUV, Jackie is driven about in limousines or her husband’s Rolls Royce, and makes frequent trips to McDonald’s and the hair and nail salon. There are also numerous shopping trips for everything from toys for her children (despite their home being filled with hundreds of toys that the children clearly don’t play with), pets (which the Siegels have dozens of), clothing, and antique and furniture items to fill the family homes with.
The Siegel’s are not bad people, though. Far from it, their 8th child is actually Jackie’s niece who they adopted when her parents could no longer provide her with a stable home. David is also quite proud of his charitable endeavors, the number of friends and family who he helps, and the number of jobs his company provides to people. David, and one of his sons who helps run part of Westgate even say that they are selling people vacations that make the people happier.
Unfortunately for the Siegels it all falls apart when the economy takes a dive. The family takes out a mortgage on the 90,000 square foot home (they had initially been paying cash for the project) before putting it on the market for $100 million, then lays off 19 of the 23 people working in their smaller home, not to mention the 7,000 people laid off from Wesgate. From there we see the home life of the family quickly unravel.
Some of the children’s pets die of neglect, the house is a mess, and Jackie jokes that the children may now have to attend college in case David doesn’t have money for them (David later makes the comment that they may not be able to afford college as he hadn’t set aside any money for them). We also see a deeper side to David as he becomes visibly frustrated with the excess that Jackie and the children take for granted. It becomes clear even to the children that David views Jackie as a “trophy wife” and doesn’t respect her as an equal partner in their marriage. When director Lauren Greenfield asks David if he get’s strength from his marriage he says he doesn’t and that being married to Jackie is like having another child.
In the end, Westgate sells a controlling interest in it’s Las Vegas resort and the company, as well as the Siegel family is saved, so to speak. David expresses remorse admitting that he was greedy and that he would have had 15 resorts instead of 20 if he could do it all over again.
Overall, Greenfield’s documentary is a new kind of reality TV show. It’s not one in which the viewer observes superficial “real house wives” in constant alcohol induced cat fights, but one where the viewer gets a hard look at an actual family with actual self-inflicted problems that they must deal with. No one could quite place their finger on why, but many of the people I spoke with after seeing the film noted, not only that they felt sympathy for the Siegels, but that they even identified with them on some level, that’s something you would never hear regarding reality television. The film’s merit comes from it’s compelling insight into the fragility of the American family unit, the effects of an ailing economy on the wealthy, and the markedly visible representation of the problems over consumption can cause in general. The real question the film raises, in my opinion, is how sustainable is the lifestyle that more than embraces a consumption based economy?