Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

The numbers for the Orlando, Florida home of David and Jackie Siegel are astounding:  26,000 square feet, seventeen bathrooms, and a staff of nineteen employees, which includes more than one nanny.  More unbelievable is that the wealthy couple don’t think it is large enough.  The documentary THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES begins as the Siegels are building what is reported to be the biggest home in America.

The gargantuan house is inspired by the royal Palace of Versailles during the Louis XIV period, albeit with many modern amenities.  The 90,000 square foot home will feature thirty bathrooms, ten kitchens, a bowling alley, health spa, two tennis courts, a full-size baseball field that can also be used as a parking lot, and an ice rink.  Versailles practically makes their current residence seem like a studio apartment.

Constructing a $100 million home just seems like the natural progression for the Siegels, for whom money is seemingly no concern.  74-year-old David is the founder, president, and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world.  43-year-old Jackie spends as if hundred dollar bills grow on trees and they own millions of acres of large denomination currency-yielding groves.

Then the September 2008 banking crisis hits.  As David explains, his business depends on easy access to cheap money.  The Siegels’ finances are intertwined with the company, so when the banks stop making loans, the impact on Westgate Resorts and the family’s fortune is severe.  The company lays off thousands.  The Siegels slash their house staff to four, move their eight kids from private to public schools, and look to sell $350 million in assets.  The unfinished Versailles, which they’ve already invested $50 million in, is placed on a market that essentially has no prospective buyers.
Considering the subjects and the wealth they flaunt, THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES could have easily become SCHADENFREUDE: THE MOVIE. With their vulgar displays of moneyed privilege, the Siegels aren’t exactly going to win sympathy points from viewers who may earn less in a month than a financially pinched Jackie spends on a caviar treat for herself.  A former model and Mrs. Florida 1995, Jackie looks and plays the part of a trophy wife, an observation even one of her children makes.  David comes off as a loathsome person whose purpose in life is to accumulate as much cash as he can.  To top it off, the timeshare industry in which he made his riches seems particularly scummy.  Who wouldn’t take pleasure in seeing these people taken down a peg or ten?

Complicating the desire for the well-off to get their comeuppance is Jackie.  The initial impression is that she could be the template for any number of the horrid socialites and fame seekers with reality television shows.  Still, having once been a computer engineer, she’s likely smarter than her aging beauty queen appearance lets on.  While she comes from humble roots, she’s lost touch, as is in evidence when she goes to rent a car and asks the stupefied sales clerk who her driver will be.  Despite her witnessed shortcomings, Jackie cannot be effortlessly dismissed, especially when her generosity seems to come from a genuine place.  Jackie isn’t a blameless victim of circumstance.  She’s just been susceptible to the funhouse mirrors of extreme wealth around her.

Although director Lauren Greenfield documents several instances in which it’s apparent that the Siegels’ lifestyle is so alien from the vast majority that they might as well call Mars home, she hasn’t set out to eat the rich.  Like it or not, the Siegels are symptomatic of a culture at large that defines worth and happiness through consumption.  The difference between them and the rest of western society is a matter of proportion.  It’s easier to spot the motes in the Siegels’ eyes, but they are certainly not the only ones afflicted with chasing the idea that too much is not enough.  In the end, being forced to live paycheck to paycheck may provide more trappings of comfort in their surroundings, but the mental toll of financial distress is just as costly.

Grade: B+

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