The Queen of Versailles, one of the first two movies to sell at Sundance and one of the most controversial (David Siegel, the subject, is suing the festival and the filmmakers) has a difficult balancing act to pull off. As it traces the rise and fall of David, the founder of timeshare empire Westgate Resorts, and his wife Jackie, the movie has to simultaneously turn the couple into avatars of American financial recklessness, without leaving the audience so disgusted that they storm out of the theater. That it succeeds is impressive credit to director Lauren Greenfield, who has made one of the best, clearest movies about not just the housing crisis, but about American consumerism.
The hook for the movie and the source of the title is Jackie and David’s thwarted ambitions to build the largest house in America, modeled after Versailles and based on a sketch David drew on a private plane on the way to Las Vegas. The design is a monument to bad taste, as are the hilariously tacky portraits that litter the house they’re still living in, of Jackie as a Greek goddess and David as a Roman warrior.
But it’s also a testament to waste. Rather than using any room for multiple purposes, Jackie and David tacked ten kitchens onto their monstrosity so they can have a sushi bar as well as other specialized cooking spaces. The house has a wing for their children, a place Jackie plans to “visit” in one of the unintentionally callous things she regularly says about her brood. The basement is stacked with $5 million worth of Chinese marble, and Jackie has a warehouse full of decor she plans to use in it, from French furniture to giant replicas of Faberge eggs. Those piles of junk, and scenes of a garage full of unused bicycles for their children, or post-recession Jackie being coaxed into spending less for Christmas by her nannies and still walking out of Walmart with three sets of the game Operation (among other things) have blown past abundance or fulfillment straight to gorged. Nothing about the way the Siegels live their lives looks particularly desirable, from the house littered with dog shit to Jackie’s bed, plumped with seven layers of pillows.
While the Siegels live in luxury, The Queen of Versailles does an excellent job of linking the unrealistic way they’ve financed their lives with the way they run their business. Just as David mortgages all their properties to keep making money off them, Westgate targets people it perceives as cheap (most of them agree to take tours of the Vegas resort in exchange for show tickets) and talks them in to spending beyond their means on the assumption that money will stay inexpensive and the economy will keep going strong. The dependency goes in both directions: when the Siegels’ cash flow disappears, they’re in danger of bankrupting the Vegas resort, which they desperately need to stay operational so they can pay their remaining staff after massive layoffs. It turns out that at least some of the rich are no wiser than the rest of us.
The most shocking thing about the Siegels may be less the grandiosity of their ambitions and the scope of their acquisitiveness than their utter lack of sense of how the world works — or how it might see them, especially as they transition to a more reasonable standard of living. This isn’t just George H.W. Bush with the supermarket scanner. When Jackie and her children fly commercial for the first time, the children are perplexed about what other people are doing on their plane, and Jackie doesn’t understand that her rental car doesn’t come with a driver. When it comes to their staff, David gets grumpy when their first downscaled Christmas party doesn’t have staff to serve the food, and Jackie complains, “I really miss having a manager to do all this stuff for me.” When it looks like Versailles will fall through, Jackie tells one of the nannies brightly, “Marissa, look at the bright side. You might not have to clean this house.”
Perhaps most disturbing is what their unworldliness has done to their children. “I never would have had so many children if I couldn’t have a nanny,” Jackie says, just sentences before talking about how her kids are a bundle of joy. As their fortunes fall, Jackie tells the camera that “I told them they might actually have to go to college and make their own money.” And David confides that “I haven’t put anything aside” for his children or for his and Jackie’s retirement. Both David and Jackie may complain that the banks were cheap money pushers who got them hooked, but it’s shockingly careless not to have saved a thing, to believe that after their rise from modest backgrounds (Jackie as an IBM engineer and model, David from a family headed by gamblers) their fortunes were irreversible.
Some of the best parts of the movie involve not just Jackie and David’s delusions, but the more modest — but still thwarted — real estate hopes of everyone around them. Cliff, their chauffeur, turns out to have bought 19 houses as investments, only to lose not just his investments but his family home. “It happens pretty fast, but you know, you survive,” he says. “It’s hard to go back to renting…It humbles you a lot.” Tina, Jackie’s childhood neighbor and best friend, admits that she envies Jackie to a certain extent, but explains that “My dreams don’t even go that far.” Later, we find out Jackie’s sent her money to help her keep her decidedly modest house out of foreclosure. But even though Tina owes just $1,700, the money comes too late to save her. Virginia Nebab, one of the family’s nannies, owns land in her home country of the Philippines, where she hopes to return to build a house some day to fulfill her father’s dream of living in a concrete dwelling. He dies before she can return, leaving her reflecting that at least he was buried in a concrete tomb. Later, we see her living in the Siegel twins’ playhouse, telling the camera “This is my palace…I love this place and I’m so glad Jackie gave it to me.”
If we’ve come to a point where the poles of the American dream are the rotting hulk of an unfinished Florida monstrosity or a fold-away bed in a playhouse, we’re in bad trouble.