The Queen of Versailles (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
“Everyone wants to be rich,” says real-estate mogul David Siegel here, and that’s probably true. But few people would even conceive of doing with their riches what Siegel does with his. “Horror” isn’t too strong a word for it… and it’s clear that documentarian Lauren Greenfield was aiming for some good old-fashioned rubbernecking when she started shooting what became The Queen of Versailles during the height of America’s cheap-money, pass-the-risk bubble in the mid 2000s.
For Siegel and his wife, Jaqueline — his third wife, and 30 years younger than him — were building what would be the largest private residence in the United States, a gaudy monstrosity that would have, when finished, housed a bowling alley, three pools and a spa, 11 kitchens, a skating rink, a movie theater, and a 20-car garage. (This is not an all-inclusive description, but you can find one here, if you’re looking to have your stomach turned some more.) The master bedroom suite alone is, at 6,000 square feet, much larger than most entire homes. The Siegels actually had the gall — or the ignorance — to dub this pile Versailles. If either of them have any appreciation of the irony of taking inspiration and a name from the ultimate symbol of crass wealth and absolute privilege, they don’t show it.
Not even when, as happened to the former occupants of the first Versailles, it all comes crashing down around them.
Greenfield (Thin) had the amazing serendipity to be in the middle of documenting the Siegels’ outrageous lifestyle when the stock market crashed in 2008 and Siegel’s timeshare business took an enormous hit. His business thrived on the global financial circle jerk, but he was left with his pants down when it stopped.
The Queen of Versailles ends up an ever less slightly ungenerous look at the .01 percent than it might have been absent the crash, because even the uberwealthy get stressed when money gets tight. But this is still a brutal film from many angles. The Siegels are classless: Jackie’s compulsive-shopper hoarder tendencies, even in a “cutting back” mode, and the sudden lack of household staff to clean up mean the crap Jackie keeps buying as well as actual dog crap produced by their many pets turns their current palace into a disgusting sty. But they were also seemingly clueless as to the precariousness of their situation — though both David and Jackie are from working-class backgrounds and have been through genuine tough times in the past, they haven’t saved anything: not, apparently, a single penny.
Greenfield’s spends a lot of time with Jackie, and it’s clear that the filmmaker likes her: we can see that Jackie isn’t stupid — she has an engineering degree and once worked at IBM, before she figured out that modeling and trophy-wifing was much more lucrative — and she isn’t unkind. She’s just blazingly blindered, in ways that are so absolutely jaw-dropping that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them for you. Her lack of self-awareness is particularly galling when we see that her two oldest kids (the eldest is actually a niece the Siegels are raising as their own), both teenagers, appear to have their heads on straightest of all the Siegels, and are able to articulate the ironies of their lives, such as how no matter how much wealth you have, it never seems to be enough.
Whatever sort of film Queen might have been before the crash, there is nothing gleeful here, no sense that Greenfield is hoping we’ll think the Siegels got what they deserved… perhaps because they haven’t gotten anything that looks anything like even a slap on the wrist to the rest of us. David gloats, in pre-crash footage, about how he “got George Bush elected president” but won’t go into detail because, he chuckles, what he did “may not have been legal.” There’s not a lot of sympathy, either, for David’s statement that “no one is without guilt” in the financial crisis. He wants to blame to poor schmoes his company goaded into buying timeshares they really couldn’t afford, but we know that the con man is always more to blame than those he cons. He’s proud of how he made his money, by gaming a system he helped create, and he is in no danger of losing his home, as many others have. Oh, the unfinished Versailles may never be his, but the dog-crap festooned mansion is secure.
Wealth and privilege remain the “right” of the Siegels, which may be the most damning thing The Queen of Versailles has to offer.