Published on July 20th, 2012 | by Padraic Coffey0
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
The steady rise in reality television to its current dominance of the airwaves has been the result not only of a lack of creativity from studio executives, but of an insatiable desire from the public to get a glimpse into the lives of people whom they aspire to emulate financially, but have little likelihood of doing so. This voyeurism of the rich-and-famous has led to countless reality TV shows, as well as the sale of hundreds of millions of tabloid newspapers and magazines the world over. A film documenting David Siegel, multimillionaire and founder of Westgate Resorts, and his former-model wife Jackie would therefore seem a sure-fire audience hit. Who else but the Siegels, in the process of building the largest private home in America (the titular ‘Versailles’), could top shows like MTV’s Cribs, where celebrities offer tours of their gaudily-decorated mansions?
Were The Queen of Versailles merely a feature-length paean to the excesses of one of America’s wealthiest families, not only would it bore viewers minutes into proceedings, it would probably have the effect of infuriating them. Fortunately for director Lauren Greenfield (if unfortunately for the world at large), the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the subsequent havoc wreaked on the US economy meant that Westgate Resorts went from being the largest timeshare company in the world, to an organisation saddled with debt. This dramatic arc is what prevents The Queen of Versailles from becoming an obsequious look at the lives of the Siegels.
David Siegel himself is an hubristic capitalist in the tradition of classic American cinema, inviting comparisons with Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane) or Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood). In early portions of the film, Greenfield elicits nuggets of information from Siegel’s own testimony, which expose the somewhat unethical nature of his self-made enterprise. We learn that Siegel’s knowledge of timesharing stemmed from a younger man approaching him on a proposed collaborative project. Siegel duly rejected the man’s offer, before proceeding with the intellectual property behind his anticipated business venture. Siegel also admits to having helped secure George W. Bush’s, success in Florida in the 2000 US Presidential Election, in a manner which “may not have been legal”. This controversial episode was itself the subject of the prologue of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Wisely, Greenfield doesn’t probe these issues too deeply. She simply airs them for a moment, allowing the viewer to absorb the information, then moves on.
As the title implies, much of the film focuses on Jackie, the eponymous ‘Queen of Versailles’. Though her ample silicone-bust and peroxide hair might suggest an air-headed trophy wife, Jackie is, in fact, more complex. A part-time model in her younger years, Jackie chose to pursue an Engineering degree, rather than coast on her looks. The Siegels’ marriage is Jackie’s second long-term relationship, after an abusive, short-lived encounter with another man, from which she has emerged a stronger person. And, despite the lavishness of her surroundings, she does not disown her small-town roots, in one touching moment gifting $5,000 to an old friend who had fallen behind on mortgage repayments.
Which is not to suggest that Jackie is without her flaws. Overseeing eight children in total (seven biological, one adopted) results in other essential tasks falling by the wayside. Animal-lovers may balk at the discovery of a deceased, unfed lizard or an ill-fated terrier commemorated aboard a piano, having been crushed by a car. The neglect of the Siegels’ many pets superficially mirrors the recklessness of money-lenders in the years leading up to Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. And while Jackie may profess love for her plentiful brood, a great deal of the children’s parenting falls at the feet of the Siegels’ Filipino maids. Their circumstances, told in tearful confessions, could almost fuel a separate feature-length documentary. Even Jackie herself is described as being akin to “another child” when David is asked about the merits of his marriage.
The Queen of Versailles will not revolutionise the documentary format, but it will succeed in one regard that crass programmes like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and My Super Sweet Sixteen never have: it will sap audiences’ desire to switch roles with its exceedingly affluent protagonists.