In recent years, some truly stellar documentaries have cast light on the global financial crisis that struck with such devastation in 2008, such as the 2011 Academy Award winner “Inside Job” or the beautifully shot “Detropia.”
I would add to that list Lauren Greenfield’s jaw-dropping “The Queen of Versailles,” described as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story.
I’ve seen this movie three times now – the first time at the True/False Film Festival in early 2012, then again at the Joplin Electric Theater, and most recently when the Joplin Public Library acquired a copy – and each time I’m fascinated.
If you find detailed economic analysis intimidating and interviews with talking heads dull, “The Queen of Versailles” might be for you. Think of it as “The Real Housewives of Economic Collapse,” if you will.
Greenfield began the project intending to document the lives of Jackie and David Siegel as they build the largest family home – dubbed Versailles – in the United States. Where the story leads will leave you amused, surprised, sympathetic, even angry.
Self-made billionaire David Siegel is the founder and owner of Westgate Resorts. His much younger wife is a paradox: the former Mrs. Florida is fond of Botox, spray tans and plastic surgery, yet she’s also a doting mother to their eight children, loyal wife and one-time IBM computer engineer.
Despite her penchant for dropping $1 million a year on clothes, Jackie seems like a sweet, if somewhat clueless, person. She attends her son’s Little League games and volunteers in the snack bar. She adopted her niece, who had been living in poverty and neglect. While getting her hair done, she grabs her phone and hilariously orders a 50-piece McNugget from McDonalds, “with all the sauces.” She even sends her childhood friend a check to save her home.
Her husband, on the other hand, comes across as an arrogant control freak, albeit an intelligent, hard-working one. He takes credit for personally getting George W. Bush elected, both times, and is prone to statements such as “I’ve changed a lot of people’s lives. A lot of people are better off having known me.”
When the United States stock market crashes in 2008, the Siegels’ world of privilege crumbles. Four months after the opening of the newly built Planet Hollywood Westgate Towers in Las Vegas, the company is sued for unpaid bills. The Siegels begin selling their assets to pay off a huge debt, cease construction on the 90,000 square-foot Versailles, and put it up for sale. Eventually, the property goes into foreclosure.
Infuriatingly, at first the Siegels don’t accept responsibility for their predicament. The viewer learns late in “The Queen of Versailles” that David paid cash for the Versailles project, took out a mortgage anyway, then put the money into his company.
Instead, the family blames the banks, which they claim forced them to stop sales and lay off 6,000 employees. Money lenders are likened to drug pushers; they offered cheap money, got people addicted, then withdrew the money. Jackie is baffled as to why the government bailout money, which she says was supposed to be passed along to the “common people. You know, us,” hasn’t trickled down to benefit them.
As the situation grows dire, David fights to save his company. Jackie, meanwhile, does what she can to live on a budget but is woefully out of touch. She lets most of the servants go but can’t maintain her household. She shops at Wal-Mart for Christmas presents but gives out puppies and enjoys caviar on Christmas Day. She flies commercial to visit her hometown and tries to rent a car, but asks if a driver comes with the car. (The clerk’s reaction is priceless.)
Late in “The Queen of Versailles,” David is a humbled, tired man, and his wife, with her tight, frozen smile and anxious eyes, is simply trying to keep her family together. Sadly, the couple’s relationship begins to suffer.
Ultimately, “The Queen of Versailles” is a familiar story, told on a grander scale. It is one of success and failure, personal responsibility, family, and marriage.
David himself finally understands the moral of this cautionary tale:
“We need to live within our means,” he advises. “Don’t spent money that we don’t have. Don’t spend money that we think we’re eventually gonna have. Spend what we do have. Get back to reality.”
As an addendum to “The Queen of Versailles,” not long after the film was released, David Siegel sued the film maker for defamation. The case is ongoing.
Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.