LAFF Review: Queen of Versailles

'A fascinating, infuriating and poignant documentary... The film remains objective but the inherent evil shows through.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

I’m glad the Los Angeles Film Festival is showing The Queen of Versailles. It got a lot of buzz at Sundance this year but I wasn’t able to see it there. It lived up to all the hype because it is a fascinating, infuriating and poignant documentary.

Jackie Siegel is a cougar-y trophy wife to millionaire timeshare magnate David Siegel. He provides her and their seven kids with a carefree life of extravagant luxury and a full time staff of maids and nannies. He’s even building her a replica of the Palace of Versailles on some Florida land. Then the economic collapse of 2008 happens and Jackie is forced to face some realities for which she is ill-equipped.

It would be easy to spend the first act of the movie condescending to the Siegels for their self-indulgent lifestyle. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has a more sympathetic approach that gives the film more depth. It’s kind of endearing how out of touch the Siegels are. You already know their comeuppance is coming but you’ve got to love the innocence of their lavish excess. The slow reveal of the Siegel’s kitchen appliance is a sly, ironic point of view on Greenfield’s part.

Now, Jackie got her computer engineering degree from RIT so she’s smart. She quickly got out of the computer industry and went into modeling, so she had that going on for her. You can see the complete evolution of her boobs from a natural A cup to the man-made spheres busting out of every talking head shot Greenfield frames. But hey, she’s her own woman, she made her own choices.

Then we learn that David’s money bought George W. Bush the 2000 election, so that’s not okay. David even admits on camera that he used illegal practices (can’t we still do something about that?). Then we get to see the ins and outs of his timeshare business. He preys on the vulnerable and suggestible to afford his lifestyle. The film remains objective but the inherent evil shows through.

David’s son Richard runs the Westgate Properties operation in Las Vegas. Richard really believes in the self-importance and charity of their service, that he’s saving lives and marriages by giving people the opportunity to afford a yearly vacation. Richard sees his targets as moochers because they’re coming for a free weekend and free meals. See, he’s a scam artist and scam artists believe everyone else is also a scam artist trying to pull one over on them. It never occurs to him that some people are just content and he’s baiting them with the time share meeting and sales pitch.

Richard’s grandparents, David’s parents, lost all their money gambling in Las Vegas. It seems like the bully mentality, hurt people hurt people. David’s going to get revenge for his parents, and becomes even worse than the people who took their money. He turned his time share sales into mortgage securities, and wound up owing $390 million.

So now the Siegels have to make some cuts and it puts a strain on their marriage. They have to let 15 of their maids go (four remain) and the house falls into squalor with dog doodie everywhere. The poor nanny who stays has missed her own kids for decades, and then Jackie dresses her up as a reindeer for a Christmas party. That would be a “South Park” or “Family Guy” spoof of how rich people demean the poor if it weren’t all true.

The mediocre reality hits Jackie. It’s not harsh reality because it’s not like she’s out on the street. She just has to fly commercial and rent a car instead of a limo. She actually asks the Hertz desk for a driver because she doesn’t know you drive your own rental car. God, I hope she had a driver’s license.

They kill some of their exotic animals with neglect, so that’s hard to take. She doesn’t really stop shopping. The reality of parental responsibility hits her, and that part confuses me. I get overspending and outsourcing the busy work to a staff of nannies, but doesn’t maternal instinct kick in at some point? Aren’t you hardwired to want to make sure your kids are okay firsthand?

In a way David’s the bad guy. Jackie just fell for the seduction of money, but she bears personal responsibility too. You are responsible for the company you keep. The crazy part is he already had the money. He was set. He had every time share condo fully paid for. I might disagree with his practice but the money was real. He went broke, or at least into debt, on the pyramid scheme of securities.

Richard makes a good point saying money was like an addiction. Once they got hooked, it was never enough to just have money. They had to get more, so they tried to turn their money into more money. He equates the lenders with pushers, which may fit the metaphor, but then the same personal responsibility applies. We’re told to just say no to drugs, so they should just say no to lenders too.

That’s just one of the things the film made me think about. You might just see a black and white story of a selfish rich family getting their comeuppance. But their kids are still stuck with parents who are not equipped to be parents, so that’s a level deeper inherently. The way this story, which should be completely unrelatable to most movie audiences, applies to big political, personal and philosophical issues, that’s great filmmaking.