The Queen of Versailles follows the lives of an eccentric and very wealthy couple, David and Jacqueline Siegal of Orlando, Florida, both of whom come from humble roots. Despite their tendency toward excess, self-absorption and consumption, they seem likeable enough at the start of this cinéma vérité film—perfectly "cast" for their roles.
David, a self-made multimillionaire, is 74 years old. He began his career as a TV repairman but is now President and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately held timeshare company in the world. He owns 28 resorts in 11 states and is a big donor to the Republican Party.
He is more than 30 years older than his attractive, very statuesque wife, a former model who was crowned Mrs. Florida in 1993. They have eight children, between the ages of 2 and 16, whizzing around the house; a full complement of live-in nannies and housekeepers to manage the zany brood; and so many dogs and pets that they are impossible to count on screen. When an animal dies or another defecates on the rug, no one seems to blink.
At the pinnacle of their economic success, the couple decides they have outgrown their 26,000-square-foot, 17-bathroom home and begin building the biggest house in America, larger than the White House and modeled after the palace at Versailles. They sink some $50 million into the construction of the 90,000 square-foot home when their plans unravel.
Like many Americans of more modest means, they aren't able to meet their mortgage payments and their real estate holdings are thrown into jeopardy. The banks want to foreclose both on their dream house and their flagship Las Vegas timeshare property, in to which David has already sunk $390 million of his own money. David admits his "addiction" to the cheap money that once flowed from the banks.
Obsessed with restoring his financial solvency, David seems to sink into depression, retreating to his study with a tray of food at mealtime rather than dining with his family. Jacqueline is unable to keep her lavish spending in check and adjust to the new normal. We witness the wedge the economic crisis creates in their marriage, as little things seem to press David's buttons. He is constantly irritated by his family's unwillingness to turn off the lights when they leave a room. Watching the Siegal's almost singular focus on preserving their wealth and appearances, the viewer can't help but worry about the well-being of the children and housekeepers.
In one major respect, David and Jacqueline are perfectly paired: He is consumed with making money, and she is consumed with spending it. However, when they hit bottom, unlike the truly poor, there is still plenty of food on their table, including a $2000 can of caviar on Christmas Day. Yet they are forced to pull their children out of private schools, drastically reduce the size of the household staff, and worry about their financial empire in a way they never had to before.
Lauren Greenfield won the award for Best Director at Sundance, and it is a testimony to her directing and the film's excellent cinematography that The Queen of Versailles is able to convey such pathos in the face of greed. At times, it is funny and at other times, almost unbearable to watch. Ironically, the family is house poor and emotionally impoverished—-while living in a mansion (albeit a smaller one than they hoped.)
The pace of the film was slow but the antics of the King and Queen are compelling enough to hold your interest. I couldn't help but wonder why this couple agreed to make the film, or to continue it once the story turned so dark. Mr. Siegal seems to have had similar thoughts. According to news reports, he is now suing the filmmaker. Nevertheless, Mrs. Siegal showed up, all decked-out, for the première at Sundance.