“The Queen of Versailles” started out to be a documentary about a billionaire family building the largest home in America, modeled after Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles near Paris.
Then the recession of 2008 hit. The home construction stopped. But the cameras kept rolling, capturing what happens to a family used to a very pampered, sheltered existence when harsh fiscal reality intervenes.
The movie’s political implications, amid an election year in which tax cuts for the wealthy and bank bailouts are part of the debate, have not gone unnoticed.
David Siegel is president and chief executive officer of Westgate Resorts, one of the largest time-share vacation-home companies in the world. He built his empire on the inflated real estate bubble and easy credit for him and his customers.
His wife, Jacqueline, a former model and Mrs. Florida, met her hubby, 30 years her senior, when he was on the rebound from a 27-year marriage. He and Jackie had seven children together, and they took in Jackie’s niece, as well.
The movie turns the two into the poster couple for material excess, an inflated sense of self-worth and what happens when capitalism turns into unbridled greed.
At the movie’s start, David brags he got George W. Bush elected. Asked how, he demurs, saying, “It wasn’t necessarily legal.”
Jackie explains the family is “bursting at the seams” in a 26,000-square-foot Florida home with 17 bathrooms. The nanny has taken over a playhouse nearby that the children never use.
Asked why they’re building the new house, David says, “Because I could.”
Jackie takes the cameraman on a tour of the framed-in 90,000-square-foot structure and grounds, which include a ballroom, ice-skating and roller rink, spa, bowling alley, two tennis courts, pool, baseball field and 30 bathrooms.
Don’t ask about closet space. The bill for marble alone is $5 million.
When the economic crash hits, Siegel is forced to lay off thousands of employees as the time-share business plummets overnight. Versailles, half completed, goes into foreclosure.
Jackie sees 15 of her household staff of 19 let go, and the house soon descends into squalor: dog feces, dead pets that went unfed, a filthy pool.
While David hits the roof over lights not being turned off, Jackie can’t stop compulsively shopping and tanning. Dinner? The stretch limo visits McDonald’s.
If she’d known she’d lose the nanny, she confesses, she’d never have had so many kids.
David fumes at banks that will not give him a bridge loan so he can save his new $400 million condo high-rise in Las Vegas. “The lenders are pushers,” he says. “They got us addicted to cheap money, and then they took it away.”
“The Queen of Versailles” becomes uncomfortable, even painful, to watch as Jackie confronts new realities she seems ill-prepared to face.
Maybe, too, we see pieces of ourselves or acquaintances who have lived beyond our means, only to be burned by a false sense of entitlement. What this movie says about the American dream is not pretty.
Lauren Greenfield won the documentary directing award at Sundance for “The Queen of Versailles.”
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