No mock in this doc
The Queen of Versailles
Several years ago, when construction began on billionaire David Siegel’s 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion near Orlando, Florida, he wasn’t trying to build the largest single-family house in America. It just worked out that way: Somebody had to do it, and it might as well be a 70-something timeshare tycoon with the notion that his family needed more living space and the gumption to model it on the palace of Versailles.
To photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, this seemed like a good documentary opportunity. It became an even better opportunity when, with a good portion of footage already gathered, the market crashed, and so did Siegel’s master plan; suddenly he’d have to make do with the home he already had, a mere 26,000 square feet. Ever wonder what a foreclosure might feel like for a guy like that?
Also of note is how it might feel for his 30-years-younger third wife, Jackie, the former Miss Florida with a hardcore shopping habit and an air, at first, of someone who might greet the news of your bread scarcity with the suggestion to eat cake. “What’s my driver’s name?” she inquires at an airport Hertz counter, after flying commercially for the first time in forever; as if on a whole country’s behalf, the clerk makes a hard helpless face in reply. In view of this and of the actual throne on which the Siegels often pose for photo ops, it becomes clear that Jackie is why the movie is called The Queen of Versailles.
She has an engineering degree and can make certain complex calculations. That car-rental business occurs when Jackie visits her hometown in upstate New York, where she grew up in circumstances modest enough to allow for at least some understanding of how car rentals work. But that was before, among other major changes, the flagrantly figure-deforming breast implants, and it’s fair—compassionate, even—to wonder what else in her has since been warped. Is she inviting mockery, seizing a chance to ad-lib her idea of a reality-TV role for herself? Is she suffocating after a gorge of tasteless opulence, sending out some perversely coded cry for help?
Having joked that when Jackie turned 40 he’d trade her in for two 20-year-olds, David tells Greenfield the marriage depletes him, and likens it to having another child. The Siegels already have seven children, plus a niece. They also have a few pets, which tend to die from neglect or in other ways and return as stuffed additions to the hoard of knickknacks.
“We are considered the Rolls-Royce of the timeshare industry,” David also says, early on, and Greenfield supplies scenes of his Westgate Resorts sales force, including David’s semi-estranged son from another marriage, hard-selling an illusion of upward mobility to people who probably can’t afford it. After the crash, when they definitely can’t afford it, and with overdue bills halt the building of Versailles, David gets cranky about living within means. He tells his other son, “If you loved me, you’d turn off the lights,” and eventually comes around to what he calls his own addiction to cheap money. With recession-diminished fortunes, the Siegels pruned their staff from 19 to four, and one of the remaining maids had to move into the kids’ abandoned playhouse.
The shock and virtue of this film is how easily it could seem to have been made by Christopher Guest. Greenfield’s account of the Siegel saga can’t count as a mockumentary not just for its ostensible factuality, but also for its long-sighted refusal to be satisfied with mockery. If these nouveau riche pseudo-royals come off as jaw-droppingly oblivious about how their lifestyle might look to the rest of us, they do so not just symbolically but also familiarly, in recognizable human terms. Besides, it would seem we have that same obliviousness to thank for their consent to a whole film’s worth of potential self-incrimination.
David Siegel has since sued Greenfield for defamation, of course. Fittingly, this seems less to do with highlighting his vaguely untoward devotion to beauty pageants and to George W. Bush than with maybe wounding Westgate Resorts’ bottom line. Curiosity, not superiority, is what kept Greenfield’s camera rolling long enough to catch the real story here, which is that America has to have a largest single-family house somewhere, still unfinished and still for sale.