At the outset, “The Queen of Versailles,” a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, seems like it’s going to be a comeuppance story. Jackie and David Siegel are Orlando billionaires—she was Miss Florida 1993, and he owned the largest timeshare company in the world, Westgate Resorts—who decide that their 26,000 square foot house is bursting at the seams with 8 kids, and 19 staff members.
So they set out to build their dream home, a 90,000 square foot mansion full of kitschy—but expensive—junk, based on a Las Vegas interpretation of Versailles, with details like a viewing balcony to watch the fireworks at Disney World, and a private staircase for the children.
Then, the 2008 financial crisis happens, and the Siegels lose all of their money. The construction of their dream house comes to a screeching halt.
Rather than reading like an “I told you so” story, the documentary ends up becoming a metaphor for what happened to the American dream. At the beginning, our dreams were small—a small house, a car, a high school education, a safe place to raise our children—and within the past 25 years, they became so big that they were bound to fail. Vacation homes, and expensive educations with no real life value. Flat screen tvs, and SUVs for all the children.
In essence, we started to acquire things that we didn’t need, that actually burdened us. Caring for those things took up all our time, and we forgot how to live life. The Siegel’s story is no different than the average American, theirs is just the super-sized version.
The documentary begins with the Siegels on top of the world. Jackie, who is so endearing that you kind of want her to travel around with you everywhere, in your back pocket, takes the viewer on a tour through her life, her DDD fake titties leading the way. She talks about why she had seven children—she got addicted to it once she realized that she could have nannies—and why she married David, who is 30 years her senior.
After growing up poor in upstate New York, getting her degree in engineering at the University of Rochester, and working at a cubicle at IBM, she realized that she wanted to see the world. So she went to New York to model. There, she met a Wall Street douchebag. She married him, he turned out to be abusive, slashing her face because he didn’t want her to make any money.
Soon after, David—who is a classic creepster, making jokes about marrying 20 year olds to his wife, and hitting on Miss America contestants—swooped her up. He treated her with the same love and adoration that he gave to their army of small white dogs, and she appreciates his devotion.
He gives her anything she wants—plastic surgery, closets full of Louboutins, babies, and oodles and oodles of McDonald’s food, which she feeds to her slightly overweight children. When he’s at the top of the world, she’s the perfect accessory. “He made all of my dreams come true,” Jackie says, or something like it.
Her words echo, eerily, the way that David’s company sells dreams to the poor suckers who are buying their timeshares. Luring in lower middle class families by giving them a free night in a hotel, and tickets to see a show in Las Vegas, Westgate sells the fantasy of vacationing like a celebrity to people who can barely afford the mortgages on their first homes. They put small down payments using credit cards, which they clearly won’t be able to pay back, and Westgate builds a terribly shaky empire on their backs. One year, the company is doing a billion dollars in sales. The next, they’re firing 7,000 employees.
It was the first time I’ve seen faces put to the people most affected by the financial crisis. When it first happened, I was angry that the average American thought that they could afford vacation homes on such humble salaries. But seeing the way that they were sold these timeshares, and seeing the kind of nauseating fear that crosses their faces when they sign the papers to buy them, I realize that they just got sharked by people who really did think that they were selling dreams. These people had dreams themselves—money for their kids to go to college, a boat for the weekends—as did the people above them, ad infinitum, all the way up to the Siegels, who are ordinary in every way except for the money.
As soon as David’s world comes crashing down, he starts treating Jackie like she’s an expendable, something that he needs to cut out of his life—like the air conditioning bills on his house—in order to raise money for his company. Westgate was built at the expense of his personal life—an older son, who works with his father, slowly reveals that his father barely was present for most of his life—in a sort of attempt to redeem his own parents, who gambled away all of their money in Vegas.
David blames the banks—and the banks, those motherfuckers, really are to blame, letting not only the companies, but also their employees, fail while they continue making money—but takes very little inventory of what’s going on around him. Jackie, who remains devoted, cuts down on her staff until there are only 4 Philippino nannies. In the 26,000 square foot house, filled with kids, pets start to die. Dog shit accumulates in unused rooms. Lights get turned off. The family takes their first trip flying commercial. Jackie starts to gather her things, and sell them off for money.
Through it all, she remains joyfully resilient. “So what if I have to buy a $300,000 house with three bedrooms, and get some bunk beds for my kids?” she says. She sends $5,000 to her best friend back home, a woman without a credit card or debt, who just couldn’t make her mortgage payments. She makes a thrift store for the former employees of Westgate. She rescues her brother’s 16-year-old daughter from abject poverty. All of this wearing slinky polyester, her titties like volleyballs, her hair burned blonde.
Greenfield’s done something extraordinary by putting a face to what we thought was American excess and greed, but was actually just human flaw. I most liked the vignettes with the Philippino nannies, who are themselves building towards a dream.
From my days babysitting for wealthy families to pay for graduate school, I met many of them. They are all women, and they all left their children when they were infants to come to the US to make money. Frequently, they don’t see them again until they are in their 20s. They work to send money home; to pay for educations; to buy concrete houses; to give their parents dignified lives. Jackie treats them as well as she is able, without any reference point. They become part of the family.
By the end, David has been rightfully demonized. In the absence of money, he is miserly, mean, and cranky, cold to his children, terrible to his wife. This is awful to say, but you kind of hope he hurries up and dies, so that Jackie and all of his children can get a hold of his assets, which he mismanages terribly. He’s suing Greenfield for ending the documentary before he makes his comeback—but the sad truth is, that like anyone with a compulsion for gambling with high stakes, even if he makes it back, he’ll just lose it again.
But Jackie, you hope, will come back out on top. And even if she doesn’t, you know she’ll be fine. She’s had money, she’s had no money, and she realizes that life is basically the same with or without it. It’s just the people you surround yourself with, and the way that you treat them, that makes you happy.
Go see the documentary, it’s really good!!