Amidst the orange groves in Orlando Florida lives Jackie, the subject of Queen of Versailles, the latest documentary from Director and Photographer Lauren Greenfield. Greenfield follows David and Jackie Siegel, the timeshare tycoon of Westgate timeshare and his wife Jackie, a former model, beauty queen and computer engineer who’s 30 years his junior.
The couple were in the middle of building what was reportedly the largest single-family home in America when the financial crisis hit, devastating the Westgate sub-prime mortgage based timeshare business.
The Seigels gave Greenfield access to their lives, homes, business’, family and staff as they battled to complete their new mansion, a 90,000sq ft home inspired by the Palace of Versaille. Unintentionally, the house when completed, would be the largest residential property in America. Basing the design on the top three floors of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas decided to create their dream home because their current mansion is too small. “Versailles” would include staff quarters, a view of the nightly fireworks from Disneyworld, a ballroom, a custom made stained glass dome and a separate wing to house their eight children.
The eccentric Jackie is the archetypal blonde, botoxed and surgically enhanced affluent lady of leisure. Having played up to her bimbo persona for years she admits she’s made a living from her looks. Although well meaning, she seems slightly out of touch with ordinary working life, spending money and collecting possessions with little thought of any consequence.
“Tragically, Jackie’s dreams of Versailles don’t stop at the architecture and we watch her morphing into a modern day Marie Antoinette.”
In stark contrast, the staff, mainly filipino maids, are also captured on film and interviewed. The Nanny, Marissa, looks after the 7 children and has formed a strong bond with them as if they were her own. The money she earns is sent to the Philippines to look after her own children who she hasn’t seen for decades. She dreams of saving enough money of her own to build a house in the village where she lives, but like the Seigels’, that dream hasn’t come to fruition. The staff at Westegate timeshare are rapidly dwindling and entire offices are left abandoned in a ghostly state of limbo.
Even though the documentary has been very popular, David Siegel is actually suing Sundance for defamation for publishing a synopsis of the film in their catalog describing the movie as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags story”, even though during the documentary, he himself describes his family’s story as a “riches-to-rags” tale. During one of the talking heads interviews, David even claims he was personally responsible for the election of George W. Bush as president but doesn’t give any details on how “because it might not have been necessarily 100 percent legal.” The gafes extend into the timeshare business as well. His son, a Westgate executive, gives a motivation talk to the sales team telling them they’re “saving lives” by selling timeshare and claiming they’re “another emergency service”.
Even Jackie puts her foot in it at times. When talking about the government bailout initiative she remarks “I thought that rescue money was supposed to be given to the common people. Or, you know, us” in the opulence of her antique filled mansion. Verbal insights like this make Jackie an interesting subject for such a documentary. She’s both self-pitying yet incredibly generous at the same time. Having been through an ordeal of a first marriage, she’s fully making the most of her current situation without giving any consequences.
Even though she is an animal lover, with a variety of pets both alive and taxidermied throughout the house, it seems as though they’re overwhelming the household. The dogs arn’t housetrained, large snakes and puppies roam the house and have to be tracked down to avoid a tragedy. The lack of responsibility she displays rubs off on her children who forget they have a pet lizard and leave it to die, blaming the adults for not taking them to a pet store.
“oddly compelling and fascinating”
Despite their own admission that the marriage didn’t happen out of love, there seems to have grown a genuine fondness between the couple. When David hides in his cramped study to escape the madness happening in the rest of the world, Jackie brings him dinner and brings in child after child to try and cheer him up, to no avail.
The Queen of Versailles is on the surface, a hilarious documentary of an eccentric woman, her family and their dreams of the largest family home in America. Underneath, it’s a sad tale of glutton and materialism and their effect on families fortunate enough to be in that situation contrasted with those who are struggling to make ends meet. You’ll want to like the family for their humour and eccentricity yet dislike them for the self indulgence and over confidence. Tragically, Jackie’s dreams of Versailles don’t stop at the architecture and we watch her morphing into a modern day Marie Antoinette. It’s oddly compelling and fascinating to watch and slickly put together by a Director with a good eye for comedy and storytelling.
Winner of 2012 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Directing Award: Documentary. Watch The Queen of Versailles at The Sundance London Film Festival. Watch a couple of preview clips from the film below.