Documentary Review: The Queen of Versailles (2012)

Directed by: Lauren Greenfield

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary which follows the billionaire couple, David and Jacqueline Siegel, on their path from riches to rags. David made his money by owning the largest timeshare company in the world, Westgate. He met Jacqueline at a party in Florida. A former Mrs. Florida, Jacqueline was a divorced computer engineer that had previously worked for IBM. The film begins as the couple begins construction on their new home, modeled after the palace in Versailles and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. The new home will have 90,000 square feet and 30 bathrooms, a grand ballroom, servants quarters, a separate wing for the kids, bowling alley, and ice/rollerskating rink to name just a few features. Once completed, it will be the largest home in the United States.

The couple seem quite devoted to one another despite their 30 year age difference. They have 8 children and a dog. At some point, Jacqueline reveals that David had one of her previous dogs stuffed for her since she loved the dog so much. The dog can be seen lying in a dog bed under protective glass upstairs in their home. Her other dog's pelt can be seen draping her piano behind her husband as he is interviewed (sitting in what can only be described as a throne). I will let you have your own reaction to those little tidbits.

In one of many moments of hubris, David takes credit for getting George Bush elected and, in a way, the Iraqi War. But when pushed for details, he says he can't really comment as it wasn't exactly legal. Whenever people say things like that, especially to a film crew, I tend to think they are full of it. But maybe that's just me. Everything he does is the best and the biggest ever done.

He goes on to describe how he started his business. He was actually approached by someone else to build timeshares on his orange groves. Instead of selling to the guy, he takes the idea from him and builds his own timeshares. Lots of bragging continues as he describes his buildings. Apparently, Donald Trump asked him to turn down the lights on his buildings in Vegas. But make no mistake; he has his finger on the pulse of his household, even putting a restriction on the thermostat. He also doesn't care about fancy clothes.

But David isn't the only one bragging. Jacqueline goes on to describe how she has a pair of $10000 pants and more shoes than you can imagine. Her closet is larger than most people's homes. But she does go on to say that she could sell her stuff on ebay. The house is full of portraits of the family in various poses: David as King with the family surrounding him, David and Jacqueline on horseback, plaster casts of Jacqueline's pregnant belly, the bottoms of her babies.

They aren't totally self-obsessed though. They did adopt Jacqueline's niece out of the depths of poverty.  If she orders food for her family in the hair salon, she gets it for everyone. They also donate money to the Miss America pageant at a party they hold for all of the contestants. But having pretty women around might not be the best idea for a man who has been married three times and a tendency to trade his wives for younger models. he can be seen dancing with the girls into the night.

One of his grown sons (he has 6 grown children) works for him. In his sales pitch to potential salespeople for the timeshares, he tells them that selling timeshares saves lives, just like doctors and nurses. People who take vacations have fewer heart attacks and better marriages. They are sent out with a pep talk to "sell something today".  It seems to me that the business is built on convincing people who really can't afford it into buying timeshares. They seduce couples by giving them free vacations to come out and look at the units. They rationalize it by considering their prospects "mooches". The units start at around $9000 for 3 nights in a studio every other year. Every unit is sold 52 times. The salespeople push very hard to complete the sale on the first day.

But then the market crashed. All of a sudden, the business of having your clients put down 10% and you put down 90% on the mortgage isn't such a lucrative idea. The business gets sued by its creditors and thousands of people get laid off 2 days before Thanksgiving. People were crying and the atmosphere is described as a funeral. The office stands empty and dark.

Suddenly all of the lives that David felt he improved have now been destroyed by him. All of their assets have to be put on sale, including the unfinished dream house, Versailles. It is listed at 75K unfinished and 100K finished, but the banks want it unloaded at 15K.

It is interesting to see that the mortgage and financial crisis didn't just affect the middle class. Everyone was affected. In this situation, the Siegel family are the only ones who are now in trouble. Their nanny, Virginia Nebab, has been with them for many years and now finds herself without her own family and needing money. It's very sad to see how tortured she is. She gave up her own children to come to America and work for the Siegels and now her future is uncertain.

Another person affected is their limo driver. Even in the midst of their problems, Jacqueline takes a limousine to her son's baseball game. But somehow this film makes her seem human. She doesn't seem to understand that rental cars from Hertz don't come with drivers. She has lived in a bubble of wealth for so long, that she really finds herself in a world that she can't comprehend, a world where she has to drive herself and she has to fly commercial airlines. The kids have to go to public school and may actually have to go to college in order to succeed in life. Times are tough for this family.

After hearing about her humble beginnings and her abusive first marriage, it's hard not to start to pull for her. She really does seem to be a nice person. Even when she finds herself in financial straits, she still sends her childhood best friend some money to save her house. I really think she may not have understood the nature of their business and how it took advantage of people in order to make money.

The Queen of Versailles takes the audience on a journey into the world of the rich and famous. I went into the film thinking that I wouldn't care about this couple. But amazingly, they come across as real people, particularly Jacqueline. There are a few stinkers though, namely his son. It's other people's fault that they are in trouble. Their financiers got them addicted to money. He fails to see that they made their fortune preying on people who couldn't afford timeshares. He doesn't seem to want to take any responsibility for the situation. It is revealed that after his father divorced his mother, they grew up fairly poor. His father pulled him back into his life too late and their relationship is strictly professional.

After having to lay off most of their household staff, the adults aren't the only ones to suffer. The household pets begin to die because no one feeds them or cares for them. The floors are covered in dog feces and urine. Jacqueline says that she wouldn't have had so many children if she'd known she wasn't going to have nannies. The children have to help with chores and David retreats to his den and won't come out. As with most relationships, the marriage begins to suffer as a result of their problems. Jacqueline bravely tries to keep the status quo, but sadly is failing. She puts on a brave face and takes up for him, even when he treats her terribly. While she thinks their problems have brought them closer, he seems to be unable to stand being in the same room with her.

This documentary is riveting. It's a case study in the American dream. What is given can easily be taken away. I recommend that you check it out. You can watch it now on Netflix streaming or you can download it at iTunes here

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