For the first half of The Queen of Versailles, you gaze at Jackie and David Siegel with fascinated disgust. She’s a 43-year-old mother of eight, a former model and beauty queen with an artificially enhanced super-bosom. He’s a 74-year-old magnate, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world. They are so rich, their wealth almost defies comprehension. They take the limo to McDonald’s. When Jackie goes to rent a car, she asks the befuddled guy manning the counter, “What’s my driver’s name?”
The family lives in Orlando, in a mansion that has 17 bathrooms and sprawls over 26,000 square feet. But the Siegels decide they need larger digs. They will build a house with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a skating rink, a bowling alley, a gym and a full-sized baseball field. The kids will have their own “wing.” The architecture of the home will be inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France and the Paris Las Vegas hotel. When finished, the house will be big enough to fill up the Tomorrowland park at the Magic Kingdom.
That was the plan, anyway. Director Lauren Greenfield started shooting The Queen of Versailles in 2007, when the Siegels were on track to earn $1 billion, and kept filming over the next three years, after the stock market crashed and the bottom fell out of the timeshare industry, taking the family fortune with it. By then, construction was underway on what was intended to be the largest single-roof home in America. David had spent too much money (more than $150 million) on the project to simply walk away. Abandoning the dream home would be an admission of defeat, something a man who has mistaken wealth for power is incapable of doing.
The Queen of Versailles would be entertaining enough if Greenfield had settled for the gape-and-gawk shock value of reality TV and made a super-sized episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The movie is filled with moments that make you laugh and cringe at the same time: Jackie showing off the contents of her warehoused art (“What do you call the, uh, eggs from Russia?” she says, pointing at her Faberge collection. “Look, I’ve got the giant ones!”) or fretting over having to tell her children they may have to go to college now that the family’s broke. In one scene, she discovers that her daughter’s pet lizard has starved to death in its terrarium (in her defense, the girl says that she couldn’t get anyone to take her to the pet store to buy the animal food). In another, more horrifying scene, Jackie discovers her Pomeranian’s puppies are missing, and fears that her son’s pet boa, which slithers around loose in the house, may have eaten them.
Jackie’s relationship to her children (one of them a niece she is raising as her own) is tenuous — they relate to her more as a substitute teacher than a parent — and her connection to her husband grows increasingly brittle as their finances worsen. At first, she proudly plays the role of trophy wife. Later, no amount of low-cut cleavage or Botox injections can prevent David from calling her “an old hag” on camera or shrinking away from her when she tries to give him a Christmas kiss. In an effort to make the film more expansive, Greenfield takes small detours, like the life stories of one of the Siegels’ nannies or the family’s limo driver, that come off as filler. The heart of The Queen of Versailles rests with the increasingly troubled couple, whose divide grows larger with every financial setback, and especially Jackie, who seems either unwilling or unable to see that her husband, disappointed by his own failure and annoyed by her indefatigable spirit, is slowly growing to hate her. By the end, the movie has pulled off a small miracle: You become absorbed in the lives of these people for who they are and not what they own.