I knew what I was getting into when I selected The Queen of Versailles on Netflix instant. I guess I felt like watching a train wreck. I didn’t imagine it would be so riveting.
The Queen of Versailles, directed by Lauren Greenfield, tells the story of David and Jackie Siegel, a wealthy couple from Florida. David is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest private time-share business in the world. They are filthy…quite literally in fact…rich. So rich that they set out to build their own version of Versailles right there in southern Florida. They sink tens of millions of dollars into the project, a 90,000 square foot behemoth with 10 kitchens, 13 bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, and a 20-car garage with additional space for limos, a two-lane bowling alley, an indoor rollerskating rink, a video arcade, a fitness center with spa, two tennis courts, and a baseball diamond. Do they really need this much space? Well, they’ve already consumed themselves out of space in their current 26,000 square foot mansion.
Before they can finish their “dream home,” the economy tanks, sending David’s business into a tailspin. Development of a new Vegas property halts and new business slowly dries up. David panics, stresses out, and begins a desperate search for new money. The Siegels also try to sell off many of their most valuable assets (a plane, properties, etc.) while still trying desperately to hold on to their Versailles. It doesn’t work and they’re forced to put Versailles on the market. It’s still available if you’ve got the cash ($65 million that is).
On one level, The Queen of Versailles is nothing more than a cheap freakshow. It’s a glimpse into how the other .5% live, and it is, here, deeply grotesque. There are endless purchases and mounds of waste. There are eight children who know nothing about taking care of themselves. If you meet them as adults, run the other way. This is a brood of vipers if I’ve ever seen one.
Yet they’re representative of so much of what’s wrong in the world today and, as such, are terribly normal. The wise Notorious B.I.G. left us with one important lesson: mo’ money, mo’ problems. Actually, The Queen of Versailles shows us it’s actually, simply, mo’ money, same problems. Like so many of their middle-class counterparts, the Siegels cannot live below, or even within, their means. Their means just happen to be epically larger than most everyone else’s. With the ability to purchase more, their greed grows unchecked, even after David demands cutbacks during the larger economic crisis. As director Greenfield put it, “In a way they represent the best and worst of us. They’re hardworking, self-made people; they’re not entitled. But they went too far; they didn’t know where to stop.”
There’s a clear sense that David and Jackie are just rail-roaded themselves. David is clearly blaming the wrong people in his anger toward the banks. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, “There is rich irony as he complains that greedy bankers tempted him with cheap money to take out loans he couldn’t repay — which is exactly what his sales force has been persuading time-share customers to do.” Jackie frequently walks around her palatial house in a daze, unable to help her maids or to speak meaningfully to her own children. So much of The Queen of Versailles is an exercise in “what could have been.” How could their resources have been better spent? What could the future hold for these privileged children if they had better parental guidance?
The Siegels are a terribly broken family. It’s clear that they are miserably failing the truism that “to whom much is given, much is required.” While the Siegels’ actions deserve stern criticism, The Queen of Versailles should also force us to face our own failings as well…those ways in which we refuse to live within or below our means and consume, consume, consume.
The Queen of Versailles (100 mins.) is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.