This documentary gives curious viewers a glimpse into the life of timeshare mogul David Siegel and his family. The titular ‘queen’ is Siegel’s wife Jacqueline, and Versailles is the monster home they are constructing. Modelled on the original French palace, Versailles was set to become the biggest house in America. Having begun filming prior to the financial crisis, director Lauren Greenfield had planned to document the building of this house, and at the same time observe the lifestyle of a family that had fully achieved the American dream. The crisis must have seemed like a gift, offering the film a depth of contrast, a poignancy even, that might have been lacking in a straightforward portrait of extreme consumerism.
In truth though, what poignancy there is in this film exists independently of the Siegels’ financial troubles. It is misleading to call this a ‘riches to rags’ tale: these are the words of David Siegel himself, who stubbornly refuses to hand over his valuable Las Vegas property to the banks, even though it would guarantee a return to the family’s previous lifestyle of private jets, designer clothing and legions of servants. This family may now be poor by the standards of the mega-rich, but it is hard to feel sorry for Siegel when he falteringly admits that he can’t call himself a billionaire anymore. In their tales of so-called humble beginnings, both David and Jackie specifically mention that they grew up in houses with only one bathroom: what 99% of the world would see as a good standard of living, they consider a sign of hardship. Even the family’s limo driver used to have a net worth of three million dollars, and now considers himself brought low because he is renting. The only people who really deserve our sympathy are the family’s Filipino nannies. One of them has not seen her son since he was seven years old; he is now twenty-six. In order to send money home to support her children, parents and siblings, she has had to spend her life looking after another family’s offspring. She takes solace in the fact that the Siegel children, whom she has effectively raised, genuinely love her. One of the little Siegel boys routinely crawls into his nanny’s narrow bed with her, craving the comfort of physical contact more than the endless material possessions his parents provide.
Filmed in a largely utilitarian, occasionally disorienting style reminiscent of TV documentaries, the film is mainly of voyeuristic interest, and in this capacity it is by turns amusing and sickening. On the entertaining side are the aristocratically inspired baroque furnishings, white lapdogs and pastiched portraits of the billionaire and his wife, typically dressed in historical costumes. On the nauseating side are the dog droppings all over the house, the vicious circle of junk food and exercise machines, and the piles of possessions Jacqueline obsessively accumulates. Still, it seems wrong to sneer at the family’s tastelessness and ostentation: it is the uneducated consumption of the nouveau riche, ridiculed as early as Roman times by Petronius in his tale of Trimalchio’s dinner party. The Siegels’ lifestyle deserves disdain because it is obscene to be so wasteful when there are people in America (let alone the rest of the world) who can’t afford the basics to survive.
Jackie Siegel seems to have started her life sensibly and ambitiously: she earned a degree in computing at a time when few women worked in the field. But she soon realised that modelling could get her further than working in a cubicle at IBM. After winning a beauty pageant, she met the recently divorced David Siegel at a party. Thirty years her senior, David fell in love instantly. A woman who previously had no intention of having children went on to have eight, just because she knew there would be nannies to look after them. Freed of having to look after her own children, she spends her time attending gala events, or buying fancy clothes to wear to them. She has obviously undergone a breast enhancement since her early modelling days, and now undergoes further painful procedures to keep her face looking youthful.
One of the daughters can see that her father married her mother as a ‘trophy wife’, and more than once there is reference to David’s joke that once Jacqueline hit 40, he would trade her in for two 20-year-olds. There seems to be an element of truth beneath the jest: when the family hosts a Miss America party at their house, Siegel is clearly on a leering charm offensive. He reminisces about his youth, when Miss America was world famous, and says he is working to restore its glory. As a man who likes beautiful women, he can’t see the problem with pouring money into retrograde institutions that value women only for their appearance. His own marriage is a case in point of the dangers of putting eligible young women at the disposal of men with too much money: since she married him, Jackie has put her energy into maintaining her appearance rather than using her brains. When the crisis hits, and David is struggling to save his empire, he admits that his marriage provides no support to him, and that his wife is like another child to look after. Jackie, meanwhile, complains that David doesn’t tell her what is going on.
Having set out to document the apotheosis of the American dream of self-driven material improvement, The “Queen of Versailles” presents an underlying argument for egalitarianism: it demonstrates the dangers of the concentration of capital in the hands of a few. It’s not as though their riches make the Siegels particularly happy: David spends all his time working to accumulate more and more wealth; Jackie is not getting enough affection from him, and the kids have been told that they don’t need to go to university because they will never have to work for a living. Hypnotised by material things, they overlook more important values like love, respect and intelligence. Meanwhile, families who don’t have enough are also forced to devote all their energy to material things: the nannies sacrifice their entire lives to earning money, while Jackie’s childhood friend loses her modest home when she is short on a mortgage payment. Everyone would be better off if the Siegels’ wealth had been distributed more evenly.
“The Queen of Versailles” screened at ICA in London.