Before screening The Queen of Versailles at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the film’s director (Lauren Greenfield) described the film as a story about dreams and what it means to strive for, achieve and potentially lose those dreams. The American dream is built on the idea that you rise past where you began in life and The Queen of Versailles dives head first into this idea taking us inside the lives of Jackie and David Siegel as their incredible wealth affords them the opportunity to build their dream house.
Both Jackie and David came from humble beginnings and grew into the owners of the biggest single-family home in America (not that they planned it that way.) David found financial success through his Westgate Resorts timeshare business while Jackie parlayed her good looks into a successful modeling career, eventually winning the Miss Florida title (and David’s heart.) Their dream home, named “Versailles” for its grander and the palace it was modeled after, encapsulated what you give the couple who has everything – a home with a bowling alley, a stadium sized tennis court, a stadium sized baseball field, a health spa (to name just a few of its expansive amenities) and ended up with a home covering enough square footage to be considered a new “land” in the center of dreams and fantasy, Disney World.
But like many Americans, when the financial crisis hit, even the King and Queen of Versailles felt the impact. Having built his empire on the idea of selling others their dreams through lavish vacation homes, David suddenly (and ironically) finds himself starting to lose his own because of it. A mother of eight (plus her niece), Jackie finds her role at home changing as their house-hold staff is paired down and the success that had given them their current (and still incredibly large) home begins to fall into disarray without enough people to maintain its upkeep.
But Jackie is no ordinary trophy wife, she is a smart woman who wanted out of her small town situation and went to college to get a job in engineering before becoming a model. While she certainly spends frivolously and may “jokingly” complain about having to oversee her home’s lavish Christmas party (in lieu of an event planner) instead of staring in it, she will also turn on a dime and try to help one of her hometown friends from facing foreclosure on her home before Jackie realizes she faces the same fate with Versailles.
The film may start off depicting Jackie as just another Bravo housewife with an unlimited spending account, but once she grows wise to her family’s true financial woes she does not get upset that she may have to cut back, she gets upset that she was not asked to help. This honesty and heart is what makes The Queen of Versailles so compelling as we watch Jackie bounce seamlessly from eating caviar to McDonalds, buying multiple cartloads of toys for her family to starting a thrift store to give jobs to laid off Westgate employees and provide affordable shopping options to her community. Jackie, like most of us, is not simply one dimensional (although she may come off that way at first) and it is when we see the woman who has gotten everything she has ever wanted start to realize the possibility of all that slipping away that the film (and Jackie) become even more interesting and fun to watch.
At the beginning of the film, the Las Vegas Westgate sales staff were coached to sell timeshares as a way to save marriages through vacations which could improve communication between spouses and families by giving them the time and space to connect with one another. But in Jackie and David’s case, the business of selling timeshares is what ends up causing their communication issues and this simple “solution” they used to sell to countless others may ironically become their undoing. But having already come from meager beginnings, we find Jackie ready to take on this next challenge and hopefully save Versailles along the way.
The Upside: Jackie’s candor, ability to laugh at herself and willingness to open up to Greenfield makes The Queen of Versailles a woman not only interesting to watch, but also one you find yourself rooting for in this funny, heartfelt and compelling documentary that proves the higher you rise, the further you have to fall.
The Downside: While it helped add dimension to the story, the multiple vignettes focusing on Jackie’s house-hold staff seemed to slow the narrative down rather than help move it along and would have benefited from tighter editing to add to the juxtaposition against the Siegels rather than feeling like new stories of their own.
On the Side: Greenfield confirmed after the screening that the Siegels have recently been able to secure a new (and larger) mortgage on Versailles keeping it safe from foreclosure (for now) and David is looking to begin construction on the unfinished property once again.