Reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield, director
Feature documentary w/David Siegel and his wife Jackie
One of the glorious factors in making a documentary is that life can intrude on a project and make events more complex and rewarding. That’s the case with The Queen of Versailles, a feature that Lauren Greenfield started to shoot before the economic downturn of 2008. Greenfield had met David Siegel, the founder of Westgate, then the world’s largest time-share vacation operation and his wife Jackie, a brainy ex-model with a computer engineering degree while on a photo shoot for Versace.
Jackie and David were extroverts, living their lives to the fullest in 2007. They decided to build their dream house—“because I can,” says the impossibly wealthy David—which would have 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley and a swimming pool. At the time, the couple, along with their seven children, adolescent niece, and full retinue of servants were living in an Orlando, Florida house that was only 26,000 square feet; their new home was intended to be 90,000 square feet. Dubbed “Versailles” by the Siegels, the building was going be the biggest residential facility in North America.
When Greenfield began shooting, her doc would have been about the impossibly excessive dream home, a metaphor for the rampant capitalism of the times. It was also going to profile an odd couple: 74-year-old David, thrice married, who had built himself up from poverty to riches and his wife, Jackie, 43, a model turned mother and extravagant shopper.
When the economy began to tank during the shoot, Westgate began to suffer financial losses. Siegel’s Los Vegas building, a 50 storey high-rise in which he’d personally invested $40 million proved impossible to sell to individual time-share owners. The whole concept of time-sharing was, of course, predicated on a surplus of money being easily accessible to clients; suddenly, the banks began to tighten up and then foreclose on property owners across America.
As David Siegel found himself in a tighter and tighter spot, his wife appeared to be clueless—still spending money excessively. But as Greenfield’s doc discloses, eventually the situation became difficult enough for the building of Versailles to be stopped. Both Versailles and Siegel’s Las Vegas Westgate property were put on the market to sell.
That’s where Greenfield ends her doc, with the Siegels at a low point, contemplating a version of the economic disasters that had visited so many middle class Americans in the previous three years.
But even before The Queen of Versailles premiered at this year’s Sundance festival (where Greenfield won a directing award), David Siegel sued for defamation of character. Although the Las Vegas Westgate property was indeed sold at a loss, Versailles is still controlled by Siegel and he claims to be ready to finish building it. He also claims—and Greenfield admits—that certain sequences were edited out of order to make the story much more obviously a comeuppance for the wealthy Siegels.
While the courts will decide who is right and who is wrong, it just makes The Queen of Versailles that much more interesting to view. Audiences will wonder how much they’re seeing is real—and speculate about how much they’re being manipulated. They’ll also see Greenfield’s metaphor about the excesses of American capitalist being played out on the screen by the one of the best “doc” performers in years: Jackie Siegel. From beginning to end, Ms. Siegel dominates the film, with her warmth, egotism and over-the-top life style. Lauren Greenfield may have manipulated reality to suit her ends but in casting Jackie Siegel, she has scored a genuine coup. She truly is The Queen of Versailles—and we all should be in her presence for at least the length of this skillful, outrageous documentary.