Why in the name of Mammon did the 73-year-old time-share billionaire David Siegel and his 43-year-old blonde third wife, Jackie, let director Lauren Greenfield into their Orlando mansion to shoot the squirmy documentary The Queen of Versailles? My guess: With the construction of their record-smashing 90,000-square-foot palace called Versailles under way, they must have felt that Greenfield’s portrait would cement their status as America’s Most Opulent Family—a notion that would backfire spectacularly when the bottom fell out of the subprime-mortgage market and work on their wet–Dream House abruptly ceased. They’re such easy targets that you might suspect Greenfield’s motives are entirely malicious. (David Siegel is, in fact, suing her for defamation.) But I think the movie transcends malice. For Greenfield, the Siegels are a brilliant metaphor for everything farkakte about the U.S. economy and the culture that shaped it.
Consider the source of Siegel’s fortune, Westgate Resorts, the “Rolls-Royce of time-share companies,” its properties designed to appeal to ordinary folks who want to feel “rich and famous” and “vacation like a Rockefeller.” In essence, Siegel was hard-selling subprime mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them—much like the banks that, in the course of the film, swoop down to foreclose on his beloved Versailles and his 52-story Las Vegas hotel, PH Towers Westgate. The irony is delicious. Regulation of the financial markets was never his thing. Early in the film, when he’s still riding high (actually, he’s sitting on a throne), he tells Greenfield, “I got George W. Bush elected president.” How? Smirk. “I’d rather not say it. It may not necessarily have been legal.”
Forget it, Jake. It’s Florida.
Siegel is contemptible on all sorts of levels, but the so-called queen is a more complicated case: Her story would be inspiring if it weren’t also depressing. Equipped with an engineering degree, young Jackie took a job with IBM before a colleague’s computer app, which counts down the hours until he can retire and “begin to live,” inspired her to quit and become a model. Jackie married and divorced an allegedly abusive rich man, won the Ms. Florida competition, and succumbed to Siegel’s wooing.
She’d made it: Jackie became the trophy wife of an unimaginably rich man and had seven children by the time she was 40, the age at which, Siegel liked to joke, he’d trade her in for two 20-year-olds. To keep herself alluring to this jiggly septuagenarian (who plays host to Miss America contestants), she has Botox injections and a chest that looks like the collision of two barrage balloons—which inspire Siegel’s eldest son to dub her “the hostess with the two mostest.” Jackie strides around in tight camouflage-pattern tops and short shorts, past beloved dogs that have died and been stuffed. Forced to let all but four of their nineteen servants go, she weaves around dog poop (why house-train dogs when there are people to clean up their mess?) and worries that her kids might now “actually have to go to college.” After flying on a commercial airline for the first time in decades, she rents a car from Hertz and asks what the name of her driver will be. Like so much of The Queen of Versailles, the scene would be unbelievable in a work of fiction on the grounds that no one could be that clueless.
Here’s the strange part: Jackie is appealingly vulnerable, with neither the lip-licking materialism of reality-show stars nor the radiant sense of entitlement appearing peculiar to those born rich. Busy all these years with kids and dogs and staying in shape, she contemplates the loss of her fortune (and her limitless freedom to spend) with stunned resignation. “I married David for richer, poorer … ,” she says, selling a line that out of anyone else’s mouth would sound hollow. The Queen of Versailles has never been in control, never reigned. Like so many Americans, she gets herself a time share, surrenders to the dream of being rich, and now must reckon with the real world. But her landing will be softer than yours or mine. She’s a celebrity now.