There’s a surprisingly complex scene in The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield’s newest documentary, in which the subject, Jackie Siegel, is travelling to Binghampton, New York to visit the neighborhood in which she grew up. After getting off the airplane and making a stop in Elmira, she and her children find themselves at a Hertz Rent-a-Car counter. First, she explains to the clerk that flying commercial for the first time was bizarre. Second, she asks the clerk for the name of her driver. The clerk can only stare at her in stunned disbelief. We’re left wonder: Has Ms. Siegel truly been so privileged as to genuinely expect a driver as part of a rental car, or is she well aware of how the Hertz system actually works and is merely performing for the camera, knowing full well that the main focus of the documentary is her?
Jackie’s life has been nothing if not a climb up the social ladder, during which she had earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering technology, worked at Citigroup, was briefly in a relationship with Donald Trump, and had been a model, her efforts rewarded in 1993 when she was crowned Mrs. Florida. In 1996, at the age of thirty, she met sixty-year-old David Siegel, a real estate broker who amassed billions after buying an eighty-acre plot of orange groves in Orlando and turning it into Westgate, a private time-share resort that, since its inception, has expanded to twenty-seven other locations, including Las Vegas. David and Jackie married in 2000, would over the next nine years have eight children (including an adopted niece), and in 2006 oversaw the start of the construction of their 90,000 square-foot Orlando dream home.
They have dubbed it Versailles, and true to its name, it’s modeled after the famous French chateau. Standing at nearly seventy feet tall, the incomplete palace sits on ten acres of lakefront property. The house itself consumes an entire acre. When completed, it will have thirteen bedrooms, twenty-two bathrooms, nine kitchens, a bowling alley, a roller-skating rink, an arcade, an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a spa, and staff quarters. The kids will have an entire wing made just for them, complete with a living room, a computer center, and a movie theater. The adults will have a theater of their own, as well. Jackie takes Greenfield on a tour of the grand ballroom, which, even in its unfinished state, is a sight to behold. Two staircases sweep down on either end of the 120-foot long, sixty-foot-wide room, which has French balconies and a six-foot-high glass dome built into the ceiling.
Construction had to be halted in 2009 due to the faltering financing for Westgate, a direct result of the 2008 economic collapse. Versailles, which the banks are threatening to foreclose on, sits only 60% complete, with no interior walls, no plumbing, and no electricity. The 200 crates of Italian marble they had imported specifically for this project lies unused in the twenty-car garage. As for the Siegels, with David’s company in upheaval and his personal fortune deeply affected (he suddenly found himself around $1.2 billion in debt with no real savings), he and his family moved indefinitely into the 27,000 square-foot home intended to be a temporary residence until Versailles’ completion. By most standards, that would be more than an adequate amount of space for a family of ten. For the Siegels, Jackie’s extravagant shopping has left the house in a state of clutter.
The Queen of Versailles is nothing if not a cautionary tale of wretched excess, fueled by the relentless yet hollow pursuit of the American Dream. We now live in a time when the country’s population has been categorized into one of two percentiles; here is a profile of two proud one-percenters, one of whom defines herself by living beyond her means. We see her buying shopping carts full of board games from Wal-Mart and turning them into Christmas gifts. We see that she still has a limo driver, who in one scene takes her to McDonald’s, and maids from the Philippines, one of whom lives rather comfortably in the children’s former playpen and laments about the family she never gets to visit. We see one of Jackie’s dead pet dogs on display in a glass case, having been worked on by a taxidermist. We see entitlement and irresponsibility in her niece, whose excuse for letting her pet lizard die was not being driven to a pet store.
The Queen of Versailles was originally marketed as a “rags to riches to rags story,” prompting David to sue Greenfield and the Sundance Institute for defamation. He even says near the end of the film that he doesn’t want his company to be portrayed as going completely under. Ultimately, Jackie attended the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as if she were a celebrity and is said to have enjoyed it. But according to an interview with Susan Berfield of Businessweek.com, she’s also baffled by the way her lifestyle is criticized. “You would think they would be happy for someone living the American Dream,” she said. “Why is everyone so concerned about how we spend our money? We give a lot to charity. We keep the economy going.” David adds his two cents: “There’s always been rich and poor, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. It’s like a prison. If you only have prisoners and no guards, you’d have chaos.” Now there’s something to mull over.
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