The Queen of Versailles: Rich Irony

Time-share billionaire David Siegel and his pneumatically enhanced wife Jackie find themselves dealing with the financial crisis in this intriguing, surprising documentary from director Lauren Greenfield.

In her documentary The Queen of Versailles, director Lauren Greenfield portrays the ostentatiously privileged life of Jaqueline Siegel, a computer engineer turned beauty queen turned pneumatically enhanced wife of time-share billionaire David Siegel. The couple and their eight children are preparing to move from an already insanely large mansion into a new house — the biggest private dwelling ever built in the US, which David Siegel has christened, with a stunning lack of irony, Versailles.

Just as the film is threatening to turn into a reality TV-esque freak show (the couple’s house features portraits of themselves dressed as ancient nobles, dearly departed pets stuffed and mounted and $5 million worth of furniture in boxes), the 2008 financial crisis happens, and the time-share empire quickly collapses.

Suddenly, the Siegels have to make difficult financial decisions, just like the rest of us (I know it was tough for me when I had to start firing servants). We’re treated to mind-boggling scenes like Jackie going to rent a car and slowly realizing that it doesn’t come with a driver, and her son’s reaction when she gets upset about the kids letting their pet lizard die of starvation: “I didn’t even know we had a lizard.”

At this point, the viewer may or may not feel much compassion for the Siegels’ plight. Though the film has got good reviews pretty much across the board, my viewing companion absolutely hated it, feeling that it was trying to squeeze out cheap sympathy for people who don’t deserve it. For sure, those not inclined to commiserate for the ultra-rich may find themselves feeling more schadenfreude than sympathy.

But the film’s trump card is the personality of Jackie, who against the odds transcends the stereotype of a trophy wife and comes through as a likeable figure. (Her slimy husband is another story). She’s smarter than she seems and has a good heart, and she had enough courage to expose her own weaknesses onscreen (although at this point in history, having cameras follow you around is basically part of the American dream).

At an hour and 40 minutes, the film could have easily lost 10 or 15. And a family fight that Greenfield includes late in the story feels like a desperate grab at drama, dragging the film back into the quagmire of cheap reality schlock. But it’s still a highly interesting character study, as well as an apt portrait of the kind of personalities and behaviour that led the US into its current state of decline. ■


The Queen of Versailles opens Aug. 31

Leave a Reply