(This review was originally published on July 27, 2012 at Reel Film News)
“This is more like a riches-to-rags story,” laments David Siegel, founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, which, as of when filming commenced on “Queen of Versailles”, was the largest timeshare company in the world. The septuagenarian real estate mogul wears a dyspeptic expression on his face that reflects the woes of the 2008 financial collapse, and perhaps regret over some of the ridiculously narcissistic artwork hanging in his house.
Maybe it’s because he started construction on the largest residence in America right before the ‘bubble’ burst. “Nothing makes me happy any more,” he says. By the end of the film, he’ll be complaining to his kids about leaving too many lights on.
This isn’t merely pouting, though. As a self-made man, and someone who takes credit for getting George W. Bush elected, his attitude perhaps justifies the art. Nearly four decades after starting what is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise from scratch, a trend of over-leveraging assets, plummeting sales in addition to his refusal to unload a $700 million Las Vegas tower project to the bank for half of its estimated value threatens to culminate in bankruptcy. It’s hard to blame him, I suppose.
But as dire as this sounds, Siegel’s biggest asset is his wife Jackie, to whom the title of this documentary refers, an ex-Miss Florida who is roughly 30 year his junior. She’s a smart lady with an engineering degree who doesn’t seem quite so distressed over the fiscal bludgeoning that occurs over the two years in which “Queen” was filmed. For Jackie, the inconvenience of acclimating to a more frugal lifestyle takes a backseat to the basic needs of their eight children; though an impending foreclosure has halted construction on their dream home outside of Orlando, a 90,000 square foot replica of Versailles (a dwelling roughly 50% larger than the White House), optimism seems to be the prevailing attitude in their microcosm of otherwise material wealth. “We never set out to build the largest house in the country,” says the ex-beauty queen matter-of-factly. I guess that’ll happen. And somehow, you believe her. This makes “Queen of Versailles” an unexpectedly intelligent, funny and sometimes invasive commentary on the state of the economy, as well as a twist on what people blindly assume is a trophy wife.
After watching the first few minutes of “Queen of Versailles”, I felt like, considering how the preponderance of reality TV has negatively influenced U.S. culture (sadly, that’s probably vice-versa), we really don’t need a feature-length “Real Housewives” clone. Admittedly, I found that my jaded mentality had gotten ahead of itself; there is something insightful here in its socioeconomic scope, though not entirely original, but the outlandish, sometimes cartoonish nature of the Siegels does help deliver its message from an unusual (and purportedly candid) viewpoint. But contrary to what their ostentatious surroundings might suggest, this family is on a budget, something they’ll need to sustain for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, the mortgage on their current home is an issue. While the average American homeowner probably won’t have much sympathy for a family slumming it in a 26,000 square foot mansion because they could no longer afford the bigger one, many will at least share some level of disdain for their financial institutions. This is where award-winning photographer-turned-documentarian Lauren Greenfield finds the common denominator. Though the Siegels probably won’t end up in any campaign ads exemplifying the current state of our economy, this documentary somehow gets you to sympathize with them, at least a little.
Like Jackie’s buxom, augmented exterior, “Queen of Versailles” shouldn’t be judged by its cover, though there is plenty to gawk at along the way. By the end of the film, I had the distinct impression that she’d be just fine living with the modest amenities of her upbringing in upstate New York, and that in some instances, she’d prefer it. There’s a particularly funny scene where their new budget requires Jackie to fly coach en route to her hometown; at the car rental counter she asks “who her driver will be”. Even though I find it hard to believe that she’d become that disconnected from regular society, it is pretty humorous, and she’s such a sweetheart that you can’t help but feel a little sorry for her. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be interested in revisiting this family in five years.
Sometimes it takes a while to understand what compels a documentary filmmaker to research a story. Most recently like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Summer Pasture”, though on the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, I felt I’d learned something interesting about human nature. I think it’s important to sometimes force ourselves to eschew predispositions, if only to learn a thing or two. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised, even if it felt like “The Outer Limits”.
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