“The very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote,” are different from you and me.” Just one of the things photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield accomplishes with her latest documentary is giving us good reason to be glad that’s the case. For all their paper billions, the subjects of this picture are among the unhappiest people I’ve ever seen on screen.
The Queen of Versailles isn’t the family portrait David and Jackie Siegel signed on for. He’s a seventy-something Florida time-share mogul. She’s a surgically enhanced former beauty contestant thirty years his junior. When Greenfield met the pair in 2007 and expressed an interest in making a movie about them, they jumped at the chance. The two were in the process of building the largest residence in the United States of America. What better way to immortalize their rise from humble beginnings?
There certainly is no place like home. At least not this one: Modeled after the French palace referred to in the film’s title, its plans called for 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens, a sushi bar, two movie theaters, a bowling alley, a wing for their eight kids, a spa, two tennis courts, three swimming pools, an ice skating rink and a full sized baseball field. A 90,000 square-foot monument to themselves.
But then 2008 happened. The economic collapse hit Siegel’s business, Westgate Resorts, hard and supposedly for the most ironic of reasons. He attempts to persuade the viewer that greedy bankers suckered him into borrowing cheap money he couldn’t repay. That’s pretty funny given his obvious sophistication. Faster than you can say “subprime mortgage,” all his properties were underwater and construction on his dream home had ground to a halt. The reason this is ironic is that the promise of cheap money is the same one his sales force made to customers for years. He built his empire on it.
Who can say what sort of story this picture would have told if fate hadn’t provided that twist. It did though, with cameras rolling, and the result is a can’t-look-away cross between a Bergman drama and a Real Housewives spin-off.
Because, as her increasingly distant husband broods over his reversal of fortune, Jackie continues to spend like there’s no tomorrow, hamming it up for the cameras as though auditioning for her own reality series. Little by little, Greenfield’s cautionary tale turns into “The Jackie Siegel Show.”
I lost count of her pants-on-fire moments, scenes she attempts to pass off as real life but were clearly staged. There’s the Christmas shopping trip to Walmart. The pretense is she’s trying to be more budget conscious. The punchline is she buys so much junk it takes a motorcade of SUVs to haul it all home. There’s the time she goes through a McDonald’s Drive Thru in her limo. And the topper: On a trip to visit family and friends in Binghamton, New York, she asks the clerk at a Hertz counter for the name of her driver. Keep in mind she grew up in a middle class home in that very town. Who does she think she’s kidding?
And why would she think audiences grappling with economic hardships are going to find the spectacle of her conspicuous and clueless consumption amusing? Her husband certainly didn’t. By the time the closing credits roll, Greenfield has succeeded in chronicling the collapse of not only Siegel’s business but, for all practical purposes, his marriage. He’s openly contemptuous of his wife and heartbreakingly cold toward his kids. The tragedy is so thick it’s like Shakespeare with Botox.
The guy’s so ticked off he even sued the director for making the movie and Magnolia Pictures for distributing it. He claims its portrayal of Westgate’s troubles is misleading. I guess those 7,000 employees he laid off are just imagining they don’t have jobs.
The Queen of Versailles has much to offer-a rare glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and freaky; a case study in denial as colossal as its subjects’ empty castle. And, last but not least, confirmation that money-even mountains of it-can’t always buy happiness.