Director Lauren Greenfield didn’t set out to make the film that The Queen of Versailles ended up becoming. That’s because the original purpose was to make a documentary about the wealthy couple that was building the largest house under one roof in America. Based on the Palace at Versailles and the top floors of a Las Vegas Hotel, their Versailles was planned to be a 90,000 square foot house. Complete with bowling alley, his and hers staircases rising from the grand ballroom, a separate wing for their 8 children (7 of their own and one niece of hers that lives with them), and quarters for their large domestic staff.
But the lives of David Siegel and his third wife Jackie Siegel changed dramatically on one day in September, 2008.
Until that day, he was the King of the timeshare, running the largest timeshare company in the world. Then the markets and the financial system collapsed. Suddenly, his business was in serious trouble, particularly since he’d sunk almost $400 million into the construction of the largest resort in Las Vegas. The bankers cut off the supply of money he would get from selling timeshares to people who would put down ten percent. The banks had been happy to lend his firm money on the mortgages they held, but that all stopped on that fateful day in September.
And so, The Queen of Versailles went from being a documentary about the building of the biggest mega-mansions to the story of the couple and how the bursting of the financial bubble changed their lives.
We learn that Jackie Siegel was a beauty queen (Mrs. Florida, not Miss as she’s been wrongly identified elsewhere), a model and before that, a woman with an engineering degree who was employed at IBM. She was married to an abusive man who she ran from and met David Siegel at a party right after his second marriage had ended. He is 30 years her senior and says he was “smitten” the moment they met. But as Jackie reminds us several times in the film, “he swore when I turned 40, he’d trade me in for two 20s.”
Everything about their lives is outsized, from her obviously augmented breasts to the 26,000 square foot home they live in when the movie opens. Even that large a home is not big enough for the couple, their 8 kids, various and sundry pets, and the nannies and other domestic employees, some of whom are live-ins. That she is a compulsive consumer is evident from a quick glance at her shoe collection. Had they not gotten into financial trouble, she might have given Imelda Marcos a run for her money.
But once the financial woes begin, life is altered and Jackie has trouble adjusting. Their idea of being in trouble money-wise isn’t like that of most people. Most struggle to survive. The Spiegel’s idea of cutting back is reducing their staff from 19 to 4 and trying to spend less while shopping. But when Christmas is approaching, Jackie may be shopping at WalMart, but that doesn’t stop her from filling multiple shopping carts and two vehicles with purchases that are clearly beyond their means. She buys one of the kids a bicycle that gets tossed into a room with more unused bicycles than I was able to count before moving on to the next scene.
We’re introduced to David’s son, from his first marriage. He’s a high-ranking executive in David’s company and works closely with him, but says that he and his father are not close. We learn that while David gave his kids from that first marriage plenty of money for clothes, they had to struggle to eat at times. One begins to wonder about David’s sense of priorities, particularly when it is disclosed that any inheritance his own parents might have left for him was gambled away in Las Vegas. David is clearly a gambler like his father, willing to bet all of his other assets on holding onto his outsized new property in his father’s favorite city. He was willing to list his unfinished 90,000 square foot house for sale, but was actually happy there weren’t any buyers. He wanted to find a way to keep it.
One wonders if Jackie Siegel is that out of touch with reality, particularly when after the financial collapse she flies home to visit family and friends. She’s forced to fly commercial, since the private jets are long gone. Upon arrival, she goes to rent a car and asks the clerk at the counter for the name of the driver that’s being assigned to her. Her incredulity at finding out that she’s not being given a driver feels more like a performance than how someone who grew up in a house with one bathroom would perceive life.
It is worth noting a few things. One is that nowhere in the film is there any mention of the fact that David Siegel was ordered to pay $5.4 million in damages to a former employee in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Allegedly, the lawsuit claims that not only did he sexually harass the former employee, but supposedly Jackie Siegel made advances toward another employee. Also, David Siegel has filed a defamation lawsuit against the film’s director and producers, and he has also written to them asking that the postscript be altered to a more positive view.
There are unintended laughs, and a real, open and honest look at the lives of several people impacted by the financial melt-down. Greenfield does a great job of capturing the true feelings of her subjects and this makes her film all the more compelling. A must-see for fans of documentary filmmaking.