Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Queen of Versailles

Directed by Lauren Greenfield.
2012. Rated PG, 100 minutes.


Jacqueline Siegel
David Siegel
Richard Siegel
Virginia Nebab
Alyse Zwick

We meet 70-something year old David Siegel, his 40-something year old wife Jackie and their eight kids at their Orlando, Florida home in 2007. He is the king of an empire known as Westgate Resorts, the largest seller of time-share vacations in the world. He even claims personal responsibility for getting George W. Bush elected in 2000. It may not have been altogether legal, in his own words. As kings of empires usually are, he is also filthy stinking rich. He’s so wealthy, he is in the midst of building the largest single family private home in the United States, a 90,000 square foot behemoth he and his wife have dubbed Versailles. He estimates it will cost him about $100 million to complete. His company has also just built the biggest hotel on the famous Las Vegas strip. His eldest son Richard, (not by Jackie and appears to be about her age), runs it. Jackie is a stay-at-mansion mom who goes to expensive charity luncheons. Calling her a mom might be giving her too much credit as a team of nannies and housekeepers do most of the work. Jackie also shops. A lot. Life is good.

As you should know by now, a few short months later the bottom falls out of America’s economy. Since most of his customers begin tightening their purse strings Westgate is hit hard. To oversimplify, while what Westgate sells is physically manifested in vacations for their customers, on paper they’re sub-prime mortgages. David is hemorrhaging money and laying people off left and right (including most of his at home help) while desperately trying to save his business as a whole. In particular, he wants to save the hotel which is in serious danger of going into foreclosure. The completion of Versailles is also put on hold. Of course, all of this is a strain on the Siegel marriage as David grows ever more ornery and Jackie, not always kept in the loop, begins to feel alienated from her husband and is also stressed about the situation.

Jackie gets most of the focus, hence the movie’s title. To her credit, she maintains a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing. She slowly realizes how out of touch she and her children are. She tries to ratchet down some of her lavish habits but can’t quite keep it under control. For instance, a trip to Wal-Mart (probably a first) turns into a couple thousand dollars just in toys. With only four in-house employees, down from 19, to deal with her, David, their 8 kids, and I don’t know how many pets, things get pretty nasty around the mansion. Yet somehow, Jackie emerges as a sympathetic figure. Perhaps her husband becoming a rather grumpy old man gives us more empathy for her.

A bad break for not only the Siegels, but the entire country in the form of a recession turns out to serve this film really well. I’m guessing, they signed up to do this documentary as a way of showing off their extravagant (gaudy) lifestyle, a pat on their own backs for making it ridiculously big. If they had their way, it was going to say “Hey, look at how rich we are and watch us build our palatial estate.” Not to bash the wealthy but that would’ve been hard to twist into a narrative that was interesting to anyone. Real life intervened and gave us a plot. We get to see people go through a range of emotions, both good and bad. We see a change in the way they interact with one another. There is substance and even sadness in watching their family fortune deteriorate. Saddest of all, director Lauren Greenfield appears to have gotten it right judging by David’s reaction to the film. He and his family do not come across as well as they probably thought they would. After all, when filming started he was a billionaire with no end to his fortune in sight. At the film’s end he’s not exactly broke financially, but his spirits appear to be. He’s now suing Greenfield for $75 million for defamation of character. I’m not sure how he can win. Well, maybe he’ll win on Oscar night for Best Documentary. I don’t think he’ll enjoy that because then his loss will literally be someone else’s gain.

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