Published on May 22nd, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Queen of Versailles 
Summary: This surprising documentary begins as a superficial look at a ridiculous status symbol, but ends up as a first-hand account of the recent financial crisis. It also provides some schadenfreude for the common man.
PG | 100 min.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Studio: Magnolia Pictures | Distribution: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Yesterday’s review was on a film about a princess in “New World” America–it’s only fitting that today’s be about a faux queen in the land of Disney World. The 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles was a surprise hit with filmgoers who, like the director, got something they didn’t expect out of the experience.
Jackie and David Siegel are likely the last couple director Lauren Greenfield would spend her free time hanging about with. I’m not going to pretend I know Greenfield personally but as a Harvard-educated visual artist with credit creating pointed looks at our culture of superficiality, I can only guess she doesn’t run around with billionaires and their beauty pageant-winning wives on her free time. However, she found an entertaining focus for her breakout film in exactly this pair.
Perhaps it didn’t help that I first caught the film on Bravo, but the setup of The Queen of Versailles feels like a boilerplate episode of The Real Housewives of (insert affluent neighborhood here). For the first 30-minutes of the picture, we follow the Siegels and their eight children to lavish parties, trips to the tanning salon, and various charity balls. There is also little sense of impending doom as we get a look at their 90,000-square foot under-construction dream home, which is modeled after the French Palace of Versailles–but with a bowling alley and roller skating rink!
By the end of the film, this unfinished skeleton of a mansion serves as the perfect symbol of pre-2008 American excess. The exciting thing about documentaries is how unpredictable they can be. A director may see something that, on the surface, looks like an interesting subject but can suddenly become a much more important matter altogether once the depths are plumbed. Greenfield may have set out to make a picture about this unabashedly superficial attempt at grandeur, but when the great recession of September 2008 hits, her film truly begins.
The Siegels are depicted as a typical married couple complete with fights, silent treatments, and warm Christmas mornings–but they’re filthy rich…until they’re not. David Siegel’s wealth comes from being the founder & CEO of Westgate Resorts Ltd., which are raking in the dough by mortgaging a piece of the good life to average Joes across the country. However, the facade of the couple’s extravagant home also represents the false wealth they live on when their lenders suddenly pull the rug from beneath them.
This also serves as the bigger picture on display in The Queen of Versailles, but the star of the movie is no doubt David’s “trophy wife” (as one of their children says she could imagine their mother being) Jackie. Without Jackie’s honesty, ignorance, and kind heart, this documentary is nothing more than a bit of schadenfreude for the working stiffs who bust their ass for enough coin to watch this on Netflix. She has her moments of superficiality, such as when she tells the kids that they now might need to think about going to college to earn their own money following the economic downturn. Mostly though, she serves as a throwback to the days when women buried their heads concerning financial matters of the household.
Perhaps it’s just the way this film depicts him but I came away from The Queen of Versailles wondering how in God’s name David Siegel made any money, because he seems like an awful businessman with zero self-control. This guy certainly dreams big, but he simply doesn’t know when to give up–which felt like the central theme explored in this film. Greenfield struck documentary gold in this couple though, as she doesn’t have to resort to any narrative devices to drive home this point. There is no narration in this film, little in the way of on-screen text, and sparse music that could sway the viewer. It’s pretty much a given that this is a model on how NOT to handle your money in a post-bubble world.
The Queen of Versailles won’t change your life, but it’s a surprisingly poignant film that will have a legacy as the document of feast or famine America in the 2000’s. At the end of the day, Kenny Rogers said it best when he suggested, “You’ve gotta know when to fold ’em, know when to hold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”