Catherine Reviews Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles [IFFBoston 2012 Review]

When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began filming the Siegel’s, the billionaire family was living on top of the world. They were in the process of constructing the largest home in the United States, the 90,000 square ft. Versailles, inspired by Louis XIV-era architecture. $260 million was put into the still-incomplete palace, which was to contain everything, and I mean everything, you could possibly imagine and then some. Even to see the thing half-done is overwhelming. This was the reason Greenfield started filming in the first place. And then the economic crisis hits, effecting even the richest among us. Greenfield became inadvertently able to track the before-and-after of what David Siegel himself refers to as a riches-to-rags story.

David Siegel is CEO of the real estate and time-share company Westgate Resorts. He comes from a humble background, building his fortune from the ground up. He firmly believes that if you have it, spend it. His fortune and success has also turned into his fatal flaw. Maintaining success of his scale does not come easy, and David’s world revolves around his business. His wife and family clearly matter to him, but there is a sense that he merely tolerates his wife Jackie as opposed to truly loving her.

There are judgments and preconceptions that will undoubtedly be heaped onto Jackie, the much younger queen, as the film begins. By the end, some of these will be disproved, and some become heightened. She seems genuinely kind-hearted yet entirely oblivious, living in her own world. There is not a purposely callous bone in her body. There is also genuine love she has for her husband, but he is quite cold to her by the film’s end as his stress continually mounts.

Jackie is a compulsive shopper and a bit of a hoarder. She spends because she can and it is pretty disgusting to see her spending habits in all its excessive glory. Seeing her go to Wal-Mart to buy, amidst carts and carts of toys, three copies of the game Operation and a bike which she brings home, only for it to get thrown in a mountain of unused bikes is nauseating. And that is just the tip of the iceberg; the most miniscule of endless examples. This woman has no shame and spends millions every year on herself and her family simply because she can.

There are pets everywhere; dogs, snakes, lizards, fish, peacocks, a tiger and who knows what else? They are frequently neglected once most of the staff has to be let go and the lizard starves to death. They have seven kids plus Jackie’s niece who the Siegel’s have taken in. Jackie states that once she realized that she could have nannies look after her kids, she just kept having them. Like David, she also comes from humble beginnings (she also has a degree in engineering), and has had her fair share of hardships, including an abusive first marriage. For someone so filthily rich, she seems uncommonly down-to-earth; she just happens to spend obscene amounts of money on herself and her family. She also sees no reason why going to McDonald’s in a limo may be a bit inappropriate.

The obvious question is why should we care about billionaires who are forced to become merely millionaires? The Queen of Versailles allows us to feel both disgust and sympathy for these folks, without forcing them to be mutually exclusive reactions. We may laugh, scoff and shake our heads in repugnance at them.   But they are human and their very real struggles register as far more legitimate and dire than one would think possible.

Jackie is trying to maneuver in what seems to be a non-existent marriage. David, trapped by his own success, is trying to grasp onto what he once had, determined to his dying day to get back what he spent his life working for. Lauren Greenfield uses the absurdist 1% world of the Siegel’s to stand-in as a representative of what everyone went through due to the economic crisis, no matter what the scale.

It also represents what happens when the American Dream gets realized to such an extreme, that its inherent flaws of naïve greed and gluttony manifest in frightening ways. The teenage niece, who Jackie and David took in, lived in a very poor household. There is a point where she talks about how she used to watch people on TV with their huge mansions and think, if she lived like that, she would wake up every day with a smile on her face. She goes on to say that when one acquires that level of wealth, it is shocking just how quickly you gets used to having everything you want, constantly expecting more and more.

Watching people lose so much, yet still maintain more than what most people would dream of having, is tough at times. It may seem laughable and even distasteful to a point, to want to sympathize with their plight, but we do. Greenfield makes sure we get the sense of what they are going through. The film acquires an appropriately game-changing vibe to match the family’s situation. This is a huge ordeal for them. We get to feel the validity of their financial crisis and, up to a point, there is bona fide sympathy to be had for the Siegel’s.

The Queen of Versailles raises a lot of conflicting feelings in the viewer; and that is a good thing. People will argue about why we should care about these people. The Siegels become human to us; when we learn that Versailles cannot happen, we realize that this is someone’s dream being crushed. A ludicrous, outlandish dream that took unimaginable amounts of money, that surely could have been spent more productively, but a dream nonetheless. The Queen of Versailles is going to be an understandably tough sell for some, and Greenfield knows this, working this potential dealbreaker to her advantage. In the end, for all their misgivings, I honestly came to care for the Siegel’s.

Catherine Stebbins

Catherine has a Bachelor's in Screen Studies and a Master's in Library and Information Science. Her love of cinema goes back as far as she can remember. Idols include Louise Brooks, Leonard Cohen, Isabelle Huppert, Joanna Newsom and Jim Henson.

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