||America’s royalty of wealth feels the destructive impact of the free-market system they ordinarily trumpet so loudly in Lauren Greenfield’s messy but compelling documentary about a billionaire entrepreneur, his extravagantly acquisitive wife and the enormous house, patterned after the royal palace at Versailles, that they undertake to build before the financial crisis of 2008 derails the project. The comparison to the French Revolution’s impact on doomed King Louis XIV and Queen Marie Antoinette practically writes itself—though in this case the downfall involves not a long-established family of the American aristocracy, but some of the nouveaux riches who found their recently-acquired fortunes wiped out in the debacle.
The subjects are septuagenarian Florida mogul David Siegel, an Orlando orange grower whose Westgate Resorts became one of the most successful entities in the lucrative time-share market by power-selling “shares” in vacation pads to families looking to get away for a couple of days each year, and his forty-something wife Jacqueline, a former beauty queen from a lower-middle-class background addicted to having children and buying things. When they decide that their 26,000-square-foot house is inadequate, they begin construction of a wildly over-the-top estate that will be more than three times the size, with a separate wing for the kids, a bowling alley and a baseball field, not to mention ten kitchens and closets as big as ballrooms. It would be modeled after not only Versailles but the top floors of the Las Vegas Paris hotel, and contain more tasteless accessories than Charles Foster Kane bought to fill Xanadu. In footage from early on in the three-year shoot, which started in 2007, Siegel smugly says that he’s building the monstrosity “because I can.” (He also takes credit for George Bush’s victory in 2000, though he can’t say exactly how he did it because of possible legal liability. At least he later acknowledges the country might have been better off if Bush hadn’t won.)
The movie also goes behind-the-scenes to show Westgate’s army of pushy pitch-men and women, led by David’s son from a previous marriage, on the march, manipulating people into swiftly plunking down their credit cards for time shares. But the focus is on David, Jackie, their kids and their staff of nannies, maids, drivers and builders—until the 2008 financial meltdown hits and Siegel finds his heavily-leveraged business empire in danger, dependent as it was on sub-prime mortgages and the easy credit that suddenly dried up. Suddenly he’s trying desperately to stay afloat while Jackie continues buying everything in sight, though now she might be reduced to filling up the van at Wal-Mart instead of the finest boutiques. She even has to switch to ordinary car-rental outfits, which leads to an awkward moment when she asks a clerk the name of her driver, only to be told she’ll—gasp!—have to take the wheel herself.
The initial response to “The Queen of Versailles” is the same mixture of guilt-ridden envy and well-deserved revulsion with which viewers react to—or at least should react to—so-called “reality” television that follows well-to-do housewives and other such strivers for fame and fortune. But Greenfield also wants us to feel sorry for the Siegels as they suffer the loss of their cushy existence. She does a pretty good job of it through interviews with David, who’s shown incessantly trying to raise money to save at least his Las Vegas Westgate flagship building, and a visit to Jackie’s down-to-earth family. (It must be added, though, that Jackie undercuts the effort by bemoaning the fact that her children might actually have to go to college and get jobs rather than enjoy the lives of pampered indolence that she apparently thinks is their due.)
But the aspect of the Siegel saga that might nag at you is the effect of the whole Westgate scam on other folk. We do hear from one of their drivers—a likable fellow who’s without a job in the end—and even more powerfully from nanny Virginia Nebab, who tearfully notes that she’s been away from her own family in the Philippines for more than a decade taking care of the Siegel brood, whom she loves as though they were her own. The few seconds that she addresses the camera are likely to touch you more than any of David’s or Jackie’s woes. But we hear little about all the salespeople Westgate let go as the business collapsed, thrown into the increasing pool of the unemployed. (You can be concerned about them and their families even if you deplore their methods.) And we hear nothing about all the victims of Siegel’s time-share come-on. Did they retain their contracted right to pro-rated vacation pads, or get their investments back? Or like others destroyed by the housing bubble, were they simply left to suffer while those who bamboozled them got off more easily? Greenfield might argue that’s another story, but it’s still one that shouldn’t go ignored.
But even without it, “The Queen of Versailles” is a portrait of the American Dream gone sour so absurdly engaging that you might be ashamed of enjoying it so much. And if it jolts us into questioning whether that Dream, so often thought of in the most vulgarly materialistic terms, is in need of re-evaluation, so much the better.