The acclaimed documentary film The Queen of Versailles, released on DVD today, depicts the story of a wealthy family’s downfall amid the recession.
When American photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greefield set out to make this documentary, she intended to follow billionaire David Siegel and his trophy-wife Jackie in the process of building biggest privately-owned house in the United States.
She could not have predicted what happened next.
David, 77, owns the Westgate Resorts time-share company and Jackie is a former model, 30 years his junior. They live with their eight children in Orlando, Florida. The Siegels make for a good story, but history made the film fascinating; as the financial crisis hit America in September 2008, Greenfield was essentially documenting the collapse of the real-estate market through the effects on David Siegel’s time-share empire and his family life.
The film starts with David and Jackie building a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by the palace of Versailles. It has Louis XIV style furniture imported from around the globe, 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens (including a sushi-bar), two movie theatres, an ice-skating rink, a bowling alley and a full-size outdoor baseball field. After the market crash, the construction of Versailles and the Siegel’s lavish lifestyle is forced to a halt.
At first, David is so powerful and wealthy that he brags he was responsible for George W. Bush’s election (through illegal tactics he won’t elaborate upon). As the film progresses, it turns out he wasn’t responsible enough to save money for his children’s college education.
His relationship with his wife is difficult. A telling moment comes when Greenfield asks: “Do you get strength from your marriage?”. He hesitates and replies: “No… it’s like having another child.”
The cosmetically-enhanced and shopaholic Jackie doesn’t grasp the extent of her husband’s financial nightmare. She, along with the rest of the family, is actually very likable and fun to watch.
‘You probably know more than I do, you spoke to my husband,” she says to the film director looking amused. “I’ll have to watch the movie to understand what’s going on in my life.”
A small-town girl who gave up an engineering career for glam, she is terrified of aging and of displeasing David.
“There’s a downside to everything. My husband said when I turn 40 he’ll replace me with two 20-year-olds,” she says laughing awkwardly.
The Queen of Versailles is a well-rounded tragicomic film, in which you also hear from employees, neighbours, close friends and the Siegel children – who seem closer to their hired nannies than their own parents.
After the documentary’s release, Greenfield was hit with a lawsuit for defamation from David Siegel, who argued that the film had hurt the reputation of his Westgate Resorts company. However, the filmmaker also received high praise from her peers, with the U.S. Directing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
It is strangely gratifying to see the Siegels tumbling down from their thrones yet, at the same time, you also feel sorry for them as they are struggling to come to terms with a reality that struck a nation.