The Queen of Versailles
directed by Lauren Greenfield
starring David and Jackie Siegel
Magnolia / Evergreen Pictures
We proudly tell our children to believe in themselves and follow their dreams at any cost, but sometimes we forget to mention the dangers of leverage in an illiquid market like discretionary real estate. David Siegel made a mint selling people classy hotel rooms and making them feel special as he picked their pockets. He also was one of the speculators shoveling gasoline on the subprime bond market fire and got burnt when that party ended. Siegel's specialty was the dreaded Time Share Condominium, a piece of real estate that was not only hard to price and hard to dump in a secondary market, but could be sold over and over again. Starting with 10 acres of orange groves in the Disney area, he leveraged himself into one the biggest entrepreneur success stories of the new century. He married a trophy wife, Jackie, spawned maybe a dozen kids, and aimed to build the largest private residence in the world -- "because I can!"
We see his success and family through the camera's lens as it stares at Jackie's constantly changing cup sizes. Their 26,000 square foot starter house is hosted by a staff of 19 and a pack of small white dogs no one bothered to house-break. Pets are like the mooches who buy the time shares: disposable and replaceable but fawned over when visible.
Sincere Jackie is in denial; she started as an engineer in upstate New York, then took to modeling, marrying abusive men, and then scored big. Siegel was older but not elderly, a hot hand and charming as the devil. Jackie suspended her disbelief, spent a million dollars a year on fluff and rationalized her excesses: "handbags [are] an excellent investment; you can always sell them on eBay if you get in a bind."
The children seem a bit spoiled and the family dynamic one of power and position, and you can see how a palace coup could easily arise. Nannies allow her a new hobby, making babies, and those nannies are the only truly sympathetic people on screen. They love these peoples' kids and even get to bunk in the play house. Don't sneer -- this play house is nicer than any apartment you've ever rented.
Mr. Siegel comes off as charmingly one-dimensional; he professes love but we never see much more than sterile peck on the cheek in their romance. He's all about the "deal" and slyly claims he single-handedly elected G.W. Bush to the presidency. Along the way he admits what he did "might not have been completely legal," and then seems just a teeny tiny bit sorrowful about the Iraqi war. Nice guy, eh?
This film was shot at a critical time, and we can watch as the Siegels' world falls apart with the housing bust. He and his son blame the banks for lending them money, and then for not lending them money when their gambles go bad. Even evil Bank of America figured out you sometimes have to cut your losses. The Queen of Versailles is filmed with a neutral view point; the unseen narrator asks questions but rarely pushes boundaries, thus allowing you to draw your own conclusions. While it's hard to find true hatred of the Siegels, you won't find much sympathy for them, either. This doc captures a slice of life in the Greek tragedy of a real-estate collapse, and the whole film feels like an extended Anna Nicole Show, if Anna actually had gotten her sugar daddy's money. If you love seeing the moneyed brought down a notch, this is your film.