Several years ago, when construction began on billionaire David Siegel’s 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion near Orlando, he wasn’t trying to build the largest single-family house in America. It just worked out that way: somebody had to do it, and it might as well be a 70-something timeshare tycoon with the notion that his family needed more living space and the gumption to model it on the palace of Versailles.
To photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, this seemed like a good documentary opportunity. It became a better opportunity when, with a good portion of Greenfield’s footage already gathered, the market crashed and so did Siegel’s master plan. Suddenly the world shrank down to the size of his existent home, a mere 26,000 square feet. Ever wonder what a foreclosure might feel like for a guy like that?
Also of note is how it might feel for his thirty-years-younger third wife, Jackie, the former Miss Florida with a hardcore shopping habit and an air, at first, of one who might greet the news of your bread scarcity with a suggestion to eat cake. “What’s my driver’s name?” she inquires at an airport Hertz, to which, as if on an entire nation’s behalf, the clerk’s first reply is hard helpless silence. In view of this and of the actual throne on which the Siegels often pose for photo-ops, it becomes clear that Jackie is why the movie is called “The Queen of Versailles.”
She has an engineering degree, and can make certain complex calculations. That car-rental business occurs when Jackie visits her hometown in upstate New York, where she grew up in circumstances modest enough to allow for at least some understanding of how car rentals work. Now she carries the weight of circumstances having become less modest; it’s most visible in flagrantly figure-deforming breast implants, and it’s fair — compassionate, even — to wonder what else in her has since been warped. Is she invitingmockery, seizing a chance to ad-lib her idea of a reality-TV role for herself? Is she suffocating after a gorge of tasteless opulence, sending out some perversely coded cry for help?
Having aloofly joked that when Jackie turned 40 he’d trade her in for two 20-year-olds, David tells Greenfield the marriage depletes him, likening it to having another child. The Siegels already have seven children, plus a niece. They also have a few pets, which tend to die from neglect or in other ways and return as stuffed additions to the hoard of tacky nouveau-riche knick knacks.
“We are considered the Rolls Royce of the timeshare industry,” David also says, early on, and Greenfield supplies scenes of his Westgate Resorts sales force, including David’s semi-estranged son from another marriage, hard selling an illusion of upward mobility to people who probably can’t afford it. After the crash, when they definitely can’t afford it, and overdue bills halt the building of Versailles, David gets cranky about living within means. Greenfield sees him tell his other son, “If you loved me you’d turn off the lights!” Later she records a confession, of what David calls his addiction to cheap money. With fortunes reversed, the Siegels pruned their staff from 19 to four, and one of the remaining maids moved into the kids’ abandoned playhouse.
The shock and virtue of this film is how easily it could seem to have been made by Christopher Guest. But Greenfield’s chronicle of the Siegel saga can’t count as a mockumentary — not just for its ostensible factuality, but also for its long-sighted refusal to be satisfied with mockery. If these pseudo-royals come off as jaw-droppingly oblivious about how their lifestyle might look to the rest of us, they do so not just symbolically but also familiarly, in uncomfortably recognizable human terms. Plus, we have that same obliviousness to thank for their consent to a whole film’s worth of potential self-incrimination.
Now seems like the right time to point out that David Siegel has sued Greenfield for defamation. Apparently, and fittingly, the complaint isn’t about such character revelations as his vaguely untoward devotion to beauty pageants and to George W. Bush. It’s more about how the movie might wind up wounding Westgate’s bottom line. And it might, but isn’t that always how it goes between a documentary-maker and her subject, with the mutual assumption of some transactional risk? Curiosity, not superiority, is what kept Greenfield’s camera rolling long enough to catch the real story here, which is that today’s America has to have a largest single-family house somewhere, still unfinished and still for sale.