REVIEW: The Queen of Versailles Reveals Harsh, Humane Truths About Today's American Dream
It's hard to imagine that the documentary Lauren Greenfield initially set out to make when she started shooting The Queen of Versailles would have turned out to be anything other than grotesque. When the filmmaker, who previously directed the unflinching eating disorder investigation Thin, first approached her subjects Jackie Siegel and her billionaire husband David, it was to record them as they built their dream home, Versailles, a monstrous 90,000-square-foot Orlando abode that when completed would be the largest single-family house in the U.S. Like the Siegels themselves, the plans for Versailles displayed an astounding capacity for excess and extravagance with no accompanying sense of taste or restraint.
Inspired in equal parts by the French palace after which it was named and the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, the house and its accompanying area was intended to include 10 kitchens, 30 bathrooms, a bowling alley, a baseball field and a grand ballroom, among other indulgences. As Jackie, a 43-year-old former Mrs. Florida, gigglingly swans through the half-constructed building in her designer outfit to the film's bitingly whimsical soundtrack, pointing out offhandedly to the camera that "this is what five million dollars worth of marble looks like," she looks like a perfect symbol of oblivious privilege, a easily loathed nightmare of the One Percent.
But when David's timeshare company Westmark gets walloped by the 2008 financial crisis, the Siegels and their eight kids (seven are Jackie's and one is a niece plucked from a troubled home life) face a writ-large version of the economic turmoil into which so many households were plunged. The Siegels may be rich, but underneath the $17,000 Gucci crocodile boots, they turn out to be just as leveraged as other families who had to fight to hold on to their homes and their livelihoods, and soon their mammoth mansion is being put up for sale, an empty shell with luxury trimmings available for a mere $100 million.
The Queen of Versailles begins by inviting us to judge the Siegels, to laugh and to sneer at them — and you have to, when you see things like the custom 18th century-style family portraits of David and his wife hanging on the walls, or Jackie's late, beloved dog Chanel, commemoratively stuffed and mounted in a glass display case. But the film shifts into something profound, a genuine quiet tragedy, as the Siegels are forced to scale back and their pursuit of the American dream starts to look like a kind of infection rather than anything to do with happiness, a compulsion that demands more and more.
David earned the fortune, but this is Jackie's movie, and we start to fall in love with her as she remains steadfastly bubbly in the face of finances crumbling and her husband pulling away to obsess over saving the tower his company just had built in Vegas. She's a little ridiculous, sure, with her cantilevered bosom and carefully tautened visage, grappling to hold on to youth for the sake of a spouse who jokes about trading her in for two 20-year-olds. But Jackie's actually much less of the silly trophy wife than she appears and into which she's transformed herself — in interviews, she talks about how she got an engineering degree and a job at IBM before deciding to pursue modeling instead, and reveals how she fled her first abusive marriage.
David isn't abusive, but as times get (relatively) tougher it becomes clear that he looks at Jackie, his third wife and over 30 years younger than him, as just another acquisition rather than as a partner. "Do you get strength from your marriage?" asks an off-camera Greenfield, and he responds, "No, not really. It's kind of like having another child." Both he and Jackie came from normal middle-class backgrounds, but the lifestyle they've settled into isn't one that can easily be adapted or downsized — when they have to fire most of the 19 staff members that keep their household running, the already sizable house they've been living in while waiting on Versailles to be completed becomes an expensive shambles, with dog crap everywhere and other pets dying of neglect.
"Nothing makes me happy anymore," David tells the camera toward the end of the film, after having to lay off a slew of employees, still searching frantically for financing to save his Las Vegas tower from the bank. And both he and Jackie have the look of children who've made themselves sick gorging on candy but feel like they need to keep eating because they know it's a treat. He retreats into his cluttered work room, where he sits with the TV on, surrounded by paperwork, avoiding his family. Forced to downgrade to Walmart, Jackie purchased multiple shopping carts full of toys that her kids don't need or want — the camera silently observes the new bike she purchased for one of the children being added to a huge pile of them already crowding the garage.
Why did the Siegels let Greenfield keep filming? Well, why did they let her start in the first place? These are people who aren't afraid to discuss the fact that the pile of caviar they're eating cost $2,000, because the amount that was spent on it is part of (maybe all of) the pleasure, and that only counts when there's an audience to appreciate it. There's a certain type of painful honesty that shines through in both their interviews toward the end and, particularly, in those with the staff, women from places like the Philippines who are saving up for homes of their own with families they haven't seen for years.
David is now suing Greenfield for the way his family and business is portrayed in the film, but The Queen of Versailles isn't a hit piece — it develops an almost mournful empathy for its subjects as they fall from great heights to merely impressive ones. To say that money can't buy happiness is a trite reduction of the complicated range of emotions the film evokes — maybe it's more that money can allow you to escape from the self-reflection that's always threatening to catch up with you and lay you bare.