The financial crash of 2008 was bad for most everybody. But documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield may have been an exception.
A couple of years before the crash, Greenfield began work on a film about the Siegels of Orlando — time-share mogul David (founder of Westgate Resorts) and his decades-younger trophy wife Jackie — who were, at the time, building what would be the largest single-family residence in the country, a 90,000-square-foot, $100 million monstrosity modeled on the Palace of Versailles. Why? According to Jackie, it was because their current 26,000-square-foot home couldn't contain their eight kids, live-in nannies and housekeepers, copious pets, and avalanche of stuff. According to David, "Because I could."
Early in the film, David is interviewed in his home atop a golden throne, Jackie in his lap. He posits himself as both king and kingmaker, provocatively claiming responsibility for getting George W. Bush elected via 2000's Florida primary mess and doing so through means that "may not necessarily have been legal." (And, yes, he's a little chagrined about the ramifications: "Had I not stuck my big nose into, it maybe there wouldn't have been an Iraq war and maybe we would all be better off. I don't know.")
But, two years into this saga, with the would-be palace half-built and crammed with expensive artifacts like the finale of Citizen Kane — Fabergé eggs, antique furniture, $5 million worth of Chinese marble stacked up — the Siegels get their unexpected comeuppance: a lending crisis and financial collapse that cripples Siegel's business and sends his family into what, in their world, approximates "poverty." Construction on the house stops, and that's the least of David's new concerns.
A statuesque blonde and former beauty queen whose cosmetic-surgery upkeep is starting to show seams, Jackie could easily be the star of one of those crass Real Housewives shows. But there's more going on with The Queen of Versailles than you might expect. It's about more than just folly-of-the-rich schadenfreude and class-animated derision, though there's some of that, and most of it's earned.
The film captures a moment in recent history when the financial upheaval was so vast that even billionaires could be victims in a way. It's the unseen "bankers" that plague David and are posited as predatory, trying to drive his Las Vegas tower — into which he's already sunk hundreds of millions — into foreclosure and into their hands.
In a way, the swift decline of Siegel's Westgate Resorts is a microcosm of the entire financial crisis. Siegel's employees hard-sell middle-class couples on time-share purchases, doing anything to get a down payment and name on a contract, all financed by "cheap money" from the banks that dries up when the economy crashes.
Some of the Siegels' after-the-fall laments are a little, well, rich, as when David forlornly says that not only might his children have to go to college and get jobs but might have to take out loans to pay for their schooling.
Greenfield — despite David Siegel's subsequent legal attempts to bury the film — doesn't render her subjects caricatures. The film seems to be unfailingly fair to the Siegels, showing how Jackie — a middle-class girl from upstate New York who left a cubicle-bound engineering job at IBM to pursue modeling and rich men — quietly tries to help a former high school classmate from losing her home and attempts to repurpose materials from Westgate properties to assist some of the company's laid-off workers.
But Jackie is someone who hasn't had to deal with limits in so long she doesn't quite know how to respond, and so we see the nanny trying to curtail mammoth shopping trips the family can no longer afford. And we see Jackie, reduced to flying commercial, asking a deeply confused Hertz employee at the airport what the name of her driver is.
The Siegels, and especially larger-than-life Jackie, would seem to make easy villains, but The Queen of Versailles is a conflicted, ultimately compassionate — maybe even too compassionate — portrait that presents the couple as an extreme personification of an American consumer culture that grew too big. But not too big to fail.
The Queen of Versailles
Opening Friday, August 31st
Studio on the Square