City Paper is not for tourists
The Queen of Versailles’ Jackie Siegel is blond and has breasts that would make you duck had the documentary been filmed in 3D. She’s a former Mrs. (not Miss) Florida who, at age 43, already feels compelled to get the kind of facial procedures that leave her skin peeling and forehead immobile. She wears skin-tight, boobtastic outfits meant for women half her age.
And yet, throughout Lauren Greenfield’s film, you don’t feel the urge to mock Jackie or regard her as a breathing Barbie. She’s a trophy wife, to be sure: Her husband is 74-year-old David Siegel, the “time-share king” whose business is so thoroughly booming at the start of the doc that the couple (and their eight kids) are building a house in Orlando that’s modeled on Versailles and will be the biggest residence in the U.S. (Because, Jackie says, “we’re bursting out of the seams” of their current mansion.) It will have 30 bathrooms. A bowling alley. An ice-skating rink. A freakin’ baseball field. When completed, the palace—it’s really hard to call it a home—will be 90,000 square feet.
While Greenfield’s keeping tabs on the Siegels, though, the house’s completion suddenly becomes an uncertainty. Turns out the recession hit the 1 percent, too, and David was forced to lay off thousands of employees, learn the dark side of mortgages and foreclosures, become aware of and irate over lights left on unnecessarily. He had to rein things in.
But back to Jackie, who’s the focus of the film. She may be a shopaholic (even when her sprees are limited to Walmart), but otherwise this doll ain’t no dolt. It’s been a while since Jackie put her computer engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology to use, but her intelligence is apparent and her down-to-earthness more appealing than any cleavage-revealing dress. Her blue-collar Binghamton, N.Y., roots didn’t dissipate when she married into such wealth: Jackie takes the family’s unexpected downsizing in stride, even saying that if they had to move into—gasp!—a regular ol’ four-bedroom house, she would make do. (She’d at least have an easier time managing such a place; when the couple fires most of their staff, their current home becomes a mess.) Even their kids don’t seem all that bratty, particularly the teenage niece Jackie adopted, who’d had a rough upbringing and says that while she’s gotten used to wealth, she doesn’t want to become spoiled.
Over the course of the film, though, David becomes more of a not-too-likable curmudgeon, clearly burdened by his financial stress. When Greenfield asks him if he gets strength from his marriage, he says no, because being married to Jackie is “like having another child.” Of course, no one knows what anyone’s marriage is truly like, but the statement still seems cruel and unfair. (It doesn’t help that earlier he told his interviewer, “A lot of people are better off for knowing me.”)
The Queen of Versailles may start off as a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of the incredibly wealthy (check out those cheesy portraits and gilded everything!), but it morphs into a look at how the haves react when they’re teetering toward becoming the have-nots. It’s fascinating, even if you can’t exactly sympathize—when one of Jackie’s childhood friends is about to lose her home, for instance, Jackie is still able to write her a check. And you may not care if their gigantic new house, which was on the market at the time of filming, ever gets completed or sold. What ultimately makes the film so intriguing is Jackie herself. Even when she has her limo driver stop for a big ol’ sack of McDonald’s, Mrs. Siegel makes a worthy queen.