The Queen of Versailles

Watched this movie last evening. What a story. It follows a couple who is one of the one-percenters, the extremely wealthy of the U.S. David and Jackie Siegel were billionaires, he having made his fortune on developing and selling time-shares. They were in the process of building the largest house in the U.S., a 90,000 square feet monstrosity in Florida. Since they had basically unlimited wealth, there were no limits. Anything either of them wanted in this house, or could think of, went in. The basic structure was modelled after the French palace of Versailles, and they called their place “Versailles”; thus the name of the film. It seemed that the publicity of them building this house is what put them in the news, and probably into the sights of the documentary maker.

While Lauren Greenfield’s documentary mainly follows them around, filming their everyday life and high-flying lifestyle, there are a few telling moments. In one interview, David admits he basically is responsible for George W. Bush winning the 2000 election. “But I can’t go into detail because it is basically illegal what I did.” (Did any of us ever truly wonder about this? I did not find myself in the least bit surprised at his revelation.) He admits that after the Iraq war began he felt he had made a mistake in getting Bush into office. The doc shows some of the activities of his various business enterprises, the high-pressure tactics used to wheedle money out of the “moochers” (Siegel’s term) who would respond to an invitation for a free vacation in exchange for listening to a sales presentation. (Haven’t most of us attended one of these things?)

What really makes the documentary is the fact that after much filming of the Siegel family, the economic crash of 2008 occurred. The time-share business basically ceased to exist, and David began losing one part after another of his businesses. The viewer can watch him age in front of our eyes as his financial disaster unfolds. Their house becomes increasingly untidy and disorderly as they have to pare down from 19 personal staff to 4. Dog shit all over the place, misplaced car keys, nobody able to keep track of anything or anybody (they have 8 children!). I’m not sure I remember the number correctly, but the house they were living in while building the 90,000 palace was “only” about 26,000 square feet.

The film left me feeling incredibly sad. Both David and Jackie came from modest backgrounds. Their lives were the epitome of the American Dream. And they did not know how to handle either the extreme wealth, or the sudden downturn in fortune. They continued to dream, to believe that everything would eventually turn around, that their life could resume its former privileged status. But the viewer can easily see how totally out-of-touch they were with “normal” life, and also with each other and their family and friends. They were average people who happened to hit it rich, and it did not do them any good. Jackie commented toward the end of the doc that she could see herself being happy with a basic four-bedroom, $300,000 family home. But I could see that David could not. He was 74 years old as the film came to its end, and his whole life’s work was going up in smoke.

By the way, they were only about half-finished with Versailles, and the banks had forced them to put it on the market. But how large a clientele would there be for a 90,000 square foot house, priced at $75,000,000? It had not sold, and David, sounding very depressed, said he hoped they could hang onto it. “I would like to finish it.”

The Calgary Herald review aptly called this film, “An enlightened, open and entirely unbiased view of obscene indulgence, . . . a thoughtful and somewhat humane post-mortem of the American dream.” I couldn’t agree more!