The Queen of Versailles tracks former IBM engineer and beauty queen Jackie Siegel and her life with husband David Siegel, owner of the world’s largest time share company. The two of them, with their eight children, lead a lavish life of private jets and giant houses. They rub shoulders with famous figures, and claim to hold political power (David Siegel takes responsibility for George Bush Juniors presidency though refuses to say how on the basis it may have been illegal).
As the film opens the family is proceeding with a plan to build a new family home. A home that will be the largest in the USA. Modelled on the palace of Versailles in France (but more closely resembling a Vegas casino) this will be a 90,000sq ft “complex” featuring three swimming pools, 10 kitchens, a 20 car garage, 30 bathrooms, a full sized baseball pitch, and a two storey wine cellar. Asked why they are building a house of this scale David Siegel can only say “because we can”.
This story alone would make for interesting look at noveau riche excesses and rampant inequality however the film takes a turn when the global financial crisis hits in 2008. David Siegel’s time share business is reliant upon cheap credit and sales to “sub-prime” borrowers (“If they’re breathing they’re buying”), especially following a large scale expansion into Las Vegas which has costs of $600 million. With the business pushed to the brink the Siegel’s get a taste of financial instability. The family fly on a commercial airline for the first time (“Mom, what are these people doing on our plane”) and hire a car while on holiday (“What’s the name of our driver… there’s no driver included?!”).
At the same time the film expands its focus to include the staff of the household, one of whom hasn’t been able to visit her own children in the Philippines for 20 years instead sending every cent back to help them, and a family friend who has also been hit by the GFC and now earns a living as a chauffeur. These additional perspectives help to place the problems the Siegel’s are facing in a clearer context and are moving in of themselves.
The film does well to straddle the line between comedy and drama. The Siegel’s could have been painted in a very unflattering manner but in the end I had at least some sympathy for all involved. Ultimately the families (wilful?) ignorance and lack of self-awareness casts a somewhat tragic light and one is left contemplating what it says about our culture that there lifestyle appears to be the one that many aspire to.
Director Lauren Greenfield was in attendance for this Sundance UK screening and held a Q and A afterwards. She explained that she met Jackie Siegel during a photo shoot for Donatella Versace. At the time Jackie was a million dollar a year customer of Versace. Greenfield photographed Jackie’s handbag (with others) and the photo went on to become a Time magazine photo of the year. Greenfield was struck by Jackie and felt she would be an interesting subject for a film.