The American dream is one founded on improvement, the distinguishing feature key to the US is the emphasis on financial improvement over self. These two parallels take centre stage in Queen of Versailles, a film by Lauren Greenfield who originally set out to tell the story of the building of the largest house in America but ended up telling one about the pitfalls of being a billionaire in the time of a market crash.
Versailles was a pet project of timeshare tycoon David Seigel and his wife Jackie whose inspiration from Louis XIV’s palatial pad is mixed with the Vegas parody hotel French House. Featuring every Cribs gimmick you can imagine and a staircase of Award Ceremony stature, the house is ridiculous, at least it would have been. The crash leaves the building unfinished and unused.
It’s purely by chance that Greenfield’s cameras happened to be filming at that specific time but it’s a chance that turned this potential puff piece about the follies of the rich into something far larger – a story on a grand and very contemporary note narrowed down and focussed into one singular family.
We are introduced to the family in their current home, an already vast Orlando mansion full of staged portraits and garish bling and awash with tiny dogs, both present ones running around and deceased ones like Chanel, displayed and exhibited in glass cases. Talking heads and news footage gives us an impression of the Seigels, David the man with the Vegas tower to outshine Donald Trump’s made his millions through timeshare schemes “The best thing in the world is being rich, the next best thing is feeling rich”. This motto is fed further down the employment food chain as employees are encouraged to feel akin to Doctors and Surgeons saving lives on a daily basis. It’s management speak on a super-sized US scale and it’s one that’s got David Siegel far.
We learn early on about his “possibly illegal” influence on George .W. Bush’s successful 2004 Presidential campaign which in hindsight he reflects regretfully possibly avoiding a war. We learn too of his meetings and dealings with the great and the not-so-good across America and the inevitable fondness for beauty pageants; he’s a key donator to the Miss America Foundation and it is here that he met current wife Jackie. The suburban girl turned former Miss America is mother to seven of David’s children, the large number being a result of her realisation that she can afford to, and guardian to an eighth from adoption. She’s right about the financial benefits; the house is flooded with helpers mainly migrants who do everything around the house and some who live in out-houses in the garden. It is this sheltered existence that comes crashing when the banks start calling for a few hundred million dollars.
By now, tales of recession loss are well known but the grandness of the scale in Greenfield’s film is what takes Queen of Versailles into incredulous levels. In amongst the mass redundancies, crisis meetings and anger towards the banks for selling “cheap money” we see the coping methods of this one family, removed as their lives may be. The supporting cast of cleaners, cooks and nannies are let go and their home swiftly feels the impact as that army of small dogs start to make their protest known in the only way they can.
The unfamiliarity of a scaled-down lifestyle often brings the films funnier moments, the family’s first commercial flight and Jackie asking the rental car assistant for the name of the driver so accustom is she to a chauffeur. This naivety lends itself to laughs but the scaling down is, of course, relative and the realities of thriftiness don’t always come easily to Jackie as testified by the size of a Christmas shopping trip and a brand new bike being added to a garage full with brand new bikes.
Between shopping trips and parties Greenfield finds a family whose concerns and relationships aren’t a million miles away from our own. Jackie is generously shown in a caring light and while the limelight isn’t something she’d shy away from there are moments of generosity that suggest the crash may have brought out more sympathetic traits. She lends an old friend a sizeable amount to keep her house and invites the cameras in to her charity warehouse where much of the stock is her own expensive home-ware (the extortionate original price being shouted out to bargain hunters from the owner). The financial strain starts to bring out positive qualities in the Siegel’s and while the pressures of keeping afloat a company of his size has sapped a deflated David, there are signs that even he may be beginning to realise his part to play, “We’ve got to live within our means…nobody is without guilt.”
The Versailles project of the title was never lived in by the Siegel’s. They were forced to reluctantly put it on the market under the gaze of news channels for $100m or an unfinished shell at $75m. The figures are staggering and difficult to comprehend but the achievement by Greenfield is to centre on the human aspect we can relate to and leave the Versailles house as a white elephant, an empty monument for this inverted rags to riches tale.