The introduction to The Queen of Versailles comprises a collage of pictures and interviews, and these opening scenes establish the tone of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary. Two main players of the piece are introduced: David Siegel is the king of Westgate, the largest and most lucrative timeshare company in the world; Jackie Siegel is his estranged wife and mother to the family’s eight children. The camera pans over along portrait after portrait of the Siegel family and these shots combine with the interviews to create a unique first impression. From the moment I saw Mr Siegel pictured sitting on a desk beside a real adult male lion, and a separate photo of Jackie as Athena in a risqué toga, accessorising with two towel-wrapped babies, I knew that the Siegels were far from the norm. Indeed, the eccentricity of the family stands out as one of the most intriguing aspects of this documentary. The only thing Greenfield seems to have needed was a camera as the film captured contains moments that are far more entertaining than any written script.
The intended focus of Greenfield’s documentary is the Siegel’s dream home. Inspired by a trip to The Palace of Versailles, France, their home is a 90,000-square-feet replica of the palace built in the Florida Everglades. It is the biggest house in America. And in true American style, it is larger than life. It hosts an ice rink, around 30 bathrooms, views of the Disney firework display, a ballroom, bowling alley, a baseball field in the grounds that doubles as a car park… the list goes on. When giving a tour Jackie is asked if a room is her bedroom, Jackie replies “No, that’s my closet”. Thus the documentary follows the building of America’s largest home. It continues until the house is fully furnished with Duarte-style luxury. Evening balls and galas such as Miss America are endlessly staged. The Siegel family, it seems, will go on to live happily ever after.
That was the intended documentary. The reality, though, is that The Queen of Versailles is a contemporary tragedy. After investing around fifty million dollars into Versailles Florida (the basement alone is store five million dollars’ worth of Chinese Marble), a tragic event occurs. Lehman Brothers Bank collapses and Wall Street Market is hit with the biggest financial downfall in modern history. This recession hits the Siegels hard. The tone changes drastically. The documentary now focuses on the sheer scale of the problem: Westgate had undertaken mortgages with only a 10% deposit. Therefore up to 90% of Westgate’s investment relied on “easy money” that they did not own but expected to pay back. The banks were now asking for payments which were harder to make and the public would no longer be sold to so easily. The documentary follows this downward spiral from the viewpoint of the Siegel family.
So yes, Lauren Greenfield directs a compelling story in The Queen of Versailles. The Siegels, although damaged by tragedy, remain endearingly humorous throughout. One particular moment near the end stand out in this regard. Jackie searches frantically for a set of misplaced pet puppies as the family’s other pet, a large python, may eat the puppies! The light tone somewhat obscures the severity of the family’s predicament, but the scale of Versailles Florida Palace suggests that perhaps, ultimately, the recession might have been good for the Siegel family, grounding David Siegel and administering a healthy dose of reality to Jackie and her children. For the Siegels, The Queen of Versailles is a harrowing venture through recession. From the comforts of the cinema however, it is an excellent watch and a fascinating documentary.