The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield Club, QFT, Belfast; Light House, Dublin, 100 min
GREED, SCHADENFREUDE and recession frame this riveting, nuanced documentary portrait of Florida billionaire David Seigel and his wife Jackie, as the couple attempt to build America’s largest family home.
The Seigels have almost completed their dream house as director Lauren Greenfield’s camera starts rolling. The plans for an improbable 8.4-km squared of corridors, staircases and walk-in wardrobes fashioned in the image of Versailles (Las Vegas, not Paris) would make an African dictator blush. But the new gaff will just about suffice for the Seigels, their eight kids, a throng of maids, an army of nannies and many, many fluffy white dogs: some living, some stuffed and mounted in memoriam.
These are not understated people. The self-made David introduces himself as the “timeshare king” and claims to have gifted George W Bush the state of Florida and, by extension, the presidency. He won’t go into the details because they’re “not necessarily legal”. Nor will he turn down the neon of the Westgate building, the brightest, newest Vegas monolith, even though fellow billionaire Donald Trump complains that its all he can see from his own grandiloquent domain.
Jackie, meanwhile, giddily embraces the possibilities of a home with its own orchestra pit and skating rink. A former IBM engineer turned beauty queen turned trophy wife, Jackie gushes over the gild and marvels at the marble.
Suddenly it goes pear-shaped. When cheap credit dries up, David’s customer base implodes and everything – the family planes, the Rolls Royce, the unfinished palace – is for sale. David, it transpires, is mortgaged to the gills. He blames the banks for getting America hooked on “cheap money”.
Jackie, too, blames the banks for thousands of lay-offs within the Westgate empire: “I thought that rescue money was supposed to be passed on to the common people,” she notes of the bailout. “Or you know, us.” “The banks made us do it,” becomes a family mantra. Whither personal and corporate responsibility?
In a film that’s pregnant with ironies, the Siegels are merely timeshare holders in their own timeshare empire. We ought to be gleeful at their expense. But for all their tackiness, for all the life-size cod renaissance oil paintings, its impossible not to feel the bump when they fall from financial grace.
Jackie is stoical: “There’s no point crying over things you can’t change”. An unpretentious buxom blonde who licks the salt from her fingers while eating McDonald’s fries in the back of the family limo, she cuts an oddly moving figure, even as her husband becomes sullen and distant. Her smiling, dutiful fidelity coalesces into a poignant cautionary tale for girls who fancy signing up for prescribed gender roles.
Greenfield’s film is bathed in Florida sunshine, adding to the sensation that we’re watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with a Marxist punchline. The rich are different from you and me; until they’re not.