No doubt when photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield started making her documentary about Jackie and David Siegel, which became “The Queen of Versailles,” she had a much different movie in mind. During the fast-paced, go-go financial era in the middle of the last decade, the story looked like a hoot: Who sets out to build the biggest house in America?
Then the financial crisis hit with the fury of a catastrophic storm.
What emerges in a much darker and more profound doc than originally envisioned is something F. Scott Fitzgerald would easily recognize: The American Dream is stood on its head as hubris and unforeseen calamity conspire to tell what David Siegel himself aptly calls a “riches-to-rags” tale.
Told more or less chronologically, the film introduces a strange cast of characters that, depending on one’s point of view, either represents conspicuous consumption run amok or a portrait of naive nouveau riche with too many toys. A shrewd entrepreneur, David built the largest timeshare business in the U.S. and turned himself into a billionaire. The statuesque Jackie, his third wife, carries the aura of a trophy wife — she’s 30 years his junior — but after bearing seven kids and adapted an eighth maybe she deserves a trophy herself.
At first blush, they come off as a winning combination for a reality TV show. She’s bubbly and a bit unconscious of the implications of what she says — or at least she is when performing before a camera she knows is rolling. Touring the $100 million, 90,000 square-foot mansion under construction near Orlando, Florida, she corrects a girlfriend, “That’s not my room; that’s the closet!”
For all his wealth David is a workaholic but he enjoys his family, friends and employees and honestly believe he does well by them like a kind of Big Daddy. When asked why he decided to build the largest home in America, one inspired by both Versailles and, yes, the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, he shrugs and says, “Because I could.”
Before the movie is over he sincerely regrets saying that.
When the 2008 crash comes, it soon is clear that because of David’s inability to separate family from business — the income and holdings are all intertwined — the end to easy money spells potential disaster for the Siegels. The bankers force a halt to construction of the mega-mansion and threaten to foreclose in his just opened timeshare tower on the Vegas Strip.
He searches for money everywhere but finding none is forced to layoff thousands of employees. He angers family members over his refusal to turn over the keys to the Vegas property thereby jeopardizing his entire empire. The uncompleted mansion goes up for sale.
What happens at home is the real eye-opener though. Jackie lays off maids and nannies and gamely re-introduces herself to the kitchen of their more modest 26,000 square-foot mansion. She even buys a lottery ticket.
But there is still a strong sense of denial. She and the kids do fly a commercial airline instead of the private jet to visit a high school friend in New York. Renting a car at the airport though, she is shocked to learn it doesn’t come with a driver.
Without a large staff, the household including the children who are completely unused to any responsibility goes to pot. Dog shit lies on the floor. A pet reptile dies in its cage for lack of food or water. Worse of all, Big Daddy grows increasingly sullen and abusive.
David rails about the lights left on everywhere in the mansion and threatened not to pay the electric bill. He pouts about a door left open and quarrels with his wife and any kid that wanders into his sightline. When asked on camera if he draws strength from his marriage, he snaps, “No,” pauses a while, then adds, “It’s like having another child.”
On one hand, it shows a certain amount of courage on the adults’ part to continue to allow the documentary crew access to the increasingly ugly side of their lives and personalities. On the other hand, David’s sour anger and Jackie’s complete ignorance about her husband’s business and conduct are jaw-dropping indictments of a lifestyle never seriously thought through.
David is on record of disliking this film and no wonder.
One can reach back to the Greek and then Elizabethan poets and playwrights to find similar characters whose fatal flaws bring the house down on their arrogance and sinful pride. As luck would have it, none of these characters is seemingly a bad person, as most people would define “bad.” In many ways, these are extremely ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation. Mostly, they live unexamined lives.
Gradually, you feel more and more empathy for Jackie and less and less for David. She clearly will never desert her man. She meant that vow of for better or worse. But you see David desert her and his family by choosing to make himself remote and cold, unwilling or unable to see things from anyone else’s point of view.
Greenfield caught lightning in a bottle with this one. She got a dream cast and a formidable story that turns a quasi-reality show into high drama. “The Queen of Versailles” presents a dark side to the American Dream, one that writers have always known to be there and struggled at times to portray and articulate. This film nails it.
Opens: July 20, 2012 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: A Magnolia Pictures and Evergreen Pictures presentation in association with Impact Partners and Candescent Films
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Producers: Lauren Greenfield, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Executive producers: Frank Evers, Dan Cogan
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Victor Livingston
PG rating, 100 minutes