The achievement of Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles is that it takes people who seem disgustingly primed for their own weekly series on Bravo and gradually convinces us to feel for them. It does this by first establishing a deep-down credibility for the two principal subjects — timeshare mogul David Siegel, owner of Westgate Resorts, along with his trophy wife, Jackie — and then pitting that credibility against a present-day ineptitude that gains a resonance both hilarious and, against all odds, tragic.
The turning point of the documentary — and, indeed, Greenfield’s journey in capturing this family’s lifestyle — is the 2008 financial meltdown. Prior to the crisis, David’s corporation was on top of the timeshare world, and their success was embodied by two imposing pieces of real estate — a magnificently steely Las Vegas skyscraper, complete with the brightest sign on the Strip, and an extravagant, half-developed Florida mansion, which, once finished, would become the largest private residence in America.
After the crisis — which hits the company’s wallets hard, and fast — there are major setbacks. The Siegels don’t become broke overnight, but the degree of their decline is nevertheless comparable to the harsh decay that more working-class families were greeted with. Whereas before they had upwards of twenty maids, they now only have four or five, and the effect is felt when, on multiple occasions, the droppings of their many snow-colored dogs are found smeared into the carpet. There’s another sequence where Jackie, on the night of David’s birthday, must quickly come up with a meal for the entire household — which includes eight kids — and the food that results looks something like the nauseatingly sticky chicken I used to come across in middle school.
Gruelingly, the family’s financial slump seeps into their emotional interaction, too. David and Jackie — who, though sharing an obviously glaring age difference, made for a nice couple when the going was filled with champagne, caviar, and Donald Trump parties — now barely speak. When David comes home from his stressful, long-hour days at the office, he silently retreats to his office to relax and watch television, sort of like the way Tommy Lee Jones does in Hope Springs. When Jackie walks in to bring him dinner, few words are exchanged, and when they are, they’re mostly bitter.
Greenfield’s scope, however, extends beyond David and Jackie. There’s a moving portrait of one of the family’s nannies, working to support her family back in the Philippines, who hasn’t seen her son in over a decade. There’s the recurring presence of David’s son from a previous marriage, who, despite playing a vital role in the family business, remains personally estranged from the man he barely knew as a child. And there’s the psychology of the couple’s children, who, like their parents, are forced to abruptly transition from a buy-everything-you-want way of a life to a situation in which they may, one day, actually have to get a job to support themselves.
Why, then, with such deceptive breadth, is the film simply called The Queen of Versailles? I think it’s because David’s a straight-shooter. He’s not an uninteresting man, but he’s a static one, always serious, always working, always striving for the fat paycheck. Jackie, on the other hand, has more external layers, and it’s the contradictions therein that fascinate. If Jackie was only a big-breasted woman with a cosmetically enhanced face, I’d want to change the channel. But she’s curiously more than that.
She comes from a modest background. Unlike a lot of the girls she grew up with, Jackie went out and earned an engineering degree of her own, instead of settling for a secretary position that wouldn’t have required higher education. When that career path didn’t pan out, she moved to New York City and became a model. All her life, she’s refused to live in the background, and that information helps us see her and understand what drives her. But then we see her, wearing an outfit of Ed Hardy-level tightness, ask for her driver’s name at a Hertz kiosk, and she starts to look like another blonde buffoon all over again.
Jackie’s also responsible for another of the film’s key images, which occurs after an afternoon toy-shopping ordeal. The nannies are unloading the jam-packed truck, and as they walk through the garage, there are dozens of old bikes on the floor. Some of them look busted, while others appear unused. There’s no indication that the family has a bicycle shortage, and yet, in the midst of their economic struggle, Jackie continues to uselessly buy new bikes.
This can’t be stupidity, because even Jackie — who at times does a pretty good job of looking stupid — isn’t that deficient. Rather, it reflects something about what obscene amounts of money can do to a person’s sense of normality. It gets us thinking that wealth can be as destructive as poverty. Near the beginning of the film, David claims that anyone who doesn’t want to be rich is “dead,” and, in that moment, we get what he’s saying. When The Queen of Versailles ended, however, I felt much differently. I don’t ever want that much money.
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