Be prepared to find yourself trying to find sympathy and compassion for the Siegels, the lavish family front and center in Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles. The first 30 minutes of the film alone may make anyone who has either been laid off or earns less than $30,000 a year violently ill.
Here we meet Florida billionaire David Siegel, literally sitting on a throne, discussing the fortune he's accumulated by convincing poor saps to buy time-share properties from his portfolio of resorts. (He also claims to have played a mysteriously integral, and illegal, role in getting George W. Bush the presidency during that hanging-chad 2000 election.) Right there by his side is Jacqueline, his bustily enhanced trophy wife. A one-time beauty queen and an IBM computer engineer, Jackie now spends her days corralling a gaggle of dogs, their seven kids and her niece (with the help of nannies, of course). The Siegels' 29,000-square-foot home, complete with amazingly tacky portraits of David and Jackie, is already a vision of obnoxiously gaudy splendor, but even they have a dream house: a 90,000-square-footer they're building, modeled on Versailles (the real one and the Vegas one), complete with bowling alley, health spa, closets the size of studio apartments and other things that would make all you 99 percenters utterly despise them.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the housing bubble bursts. When Lehman Brothers and other shysty-ass folk set off the '08 financial crisis, the company that built Siegel's time-share towers in Las Vegas sues him for unpaid bills. He has to lay off thousands of employees, including most of his household staff (whose primary work apparently consisted of picking up dogshit, something that becomes quite the familiar sight around the Siegel homestead). Siegel gets increasingly cranky, holing up in his cluttered office, working that business-savvy brain of his into finding a solution to save his business and half-finished dream house from the vulpine bankers.
However, as the movie's title suggests, Greenfield, a fashion photographer as well as a filmmaker, focuses more on matriarch Jackie. Even as she attempts to live within her means by shopping at Wal-Mart (which occasions a jaw-dropping set piece of consumerist excess) and making a McDonald's run (in a limo), you still get the sense that this formerly working-class scrapper understands how grim things are as she keeps up a brave smile and a happy home for her husband and kids. She even sets up a thrift mart, passing down her extravagant ephemera to others at bargain-basement prices.
Undoubtedly, Versailles is Greenfield showing how even the have-nots shouldn't pass judgment on the haves during this epic time of national struggle. (Perhaps unintentionally, it's also a riposte to the F. Scott Fitzgerald line about the rich being different from you and me.) As the movie ends with Jackie walking around the grounds of the palatial home she and her family will probably never live in, naively trying to find some silver lining to this madness, you do feel some twinge of sympathy. Just like most of you reading this, she's hoping a solution will come that'll get her back to living in the feckless comfort to which she was accustomed.
Of course, you may also end up saying, "Fuck her! Let her suffer like the rest of us!" Either way, I feel for you, pal.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let them buy time-shares."