David and Jackie Siegel live in the kind of house where the portraits on the walls are of themselves. They don’t collect art; they are the art.
With its 17 bathrooms and 26,000 square feet, the Siegel household is a testament to the self-worth – and self-importance – of its patriarch David, a leonine vacation maven whose timeshare company, Westgate, is the largest and most successful in the world. But it’s a cramped room in a hostel compared to the billionaire’s latest venture: a meretricious 90,000-square-foot dream home, modeled equally on French palaces and Las Vegas hotels, boasting 30 bathrooms, two tennis courts, a bowling alley, a regulation-sized baseball field, an entire wing for his eight children, and the list really does go on and on.
It was designed to be the biggest home in America – and the Siegels would be living there now if not for the stock market crash of September 2008. The Great Recession began while acclaimed documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield was shooting a movie about the Siegels, and consequently, her film “The Queen of Versailles” (opening Friday in Boca) went from an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to Luchino Visctoni’s “The Leopard” – the story of a once-powerful man trying in vain to maintain his empire as his world crashes around him.
Watching the first half-hour of “The Queen Versailles,” you’ll encounter enough money-hemorrhaging excess to bring out the inner Marxist in even the staunchest capitalist. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of the millions of Americans going hungry while one family is spending a quarter of a million dollars on a window. In the funniest moment in this frequently amusing film, Jackie and her kids take a trip to visit her high-school friend. Jackie rents a car from Hertz, only to ask the stunned employee, “What’s my driver’s name?”
But Greenfield’s film goes deeper than the initial astonishment at her subjects’ indulgences. She seeks to understand the psychology of the One Percent in a time of thrift, suggesting that, when once-humble people are suddenly plunged into a gilded age, the need for more wealth becomes an addiction. (In this way, “The Queen of Versailles” finds a parallel to Greenfield’s previous masterpiece “Thin,” about the patients of an anorexia rehab center in South Florida.)
She accomplishes this by charting the recession’s impact on the family dynamic, following what has changed (Jackie begins shopping at Walmart) and what hasn’t (she buys three carts full of crap from Walmart and can barely close the door of her minivan). David grows increasingly unhappy as he’s forced to put his half-completed Versailles on the market and battle bankers for possession of his most-prized resort in Vegas. He can’t make it through a family dinner or a holiday gathering without fretting over money, his 24-hour obsession. He acts like a deposed king in a Shakespearean drama, and we end up feeling compassion for him, hubris and all (at one point he takes sole credit for the election of his friend George W. Bush).
But Jackie’s story is the most affecting. A former Miss America who escaped an abusive marriage to live with a timeshare tycoon 30 years her senior, Jackie is 43 and looks almost 10 years older, despite her Botox treatments. Each of her dresses is a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen, emphasizing her copious cleavage in every frame like she’s a Hooters server, as if it’s all she has to offer the world. She’s intelligent, but she feels out of her family’s loop because her husband won’t discuss financial matters with her. So she becomes, in David’s own words, like another one of his children. “The Queen of Versailles” might best be described as a comedy, it has a quietly tragic undertone.
Then there’s Virginia Nebab, the family’s Filipino nanny, who works around the clock to send money back home to help feed a son she hasn’t seen in 20 years. She’s found solace in a claustrophobic shack on the Siegels’ property – proving that happiness is relative, and that money certainly can’t buy it.
The Queen of Versailles opens Friday at Regal Shadowood 16, Cinemark Palace 20 and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton; Movies of Delray and Regal Delray Beach 18; Cinemark Boynton 14; the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, and O Cinema and AMC Sunset Place in Miami.