One of the most compelling women on the screen this year is not a superhero, super-sleuth, or even super bright. She is just super rich. And pretty oblivious too, so if you are a pet or employee, beware.
Jackie Siegel is the absent-minded and opportunistic matriarch, the queen of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, a film that follows the bizarre lives of excess led by Mrs. Siegel, her husband David, their eight children, and many pets, some of which, sorry to say, don’t survive the ending.
Mrs. Siegel is accustomed to a very specific kind of life, one that involves hosting lavish galas, going on massive spending sprees, and helping direct construction on the biggest house in America, a mansion in Florida modeled after Versailles with costs nearing $100 million and occupying 90,000 acres.
Originally about the extravagant and absurd lives of one of the riches couples in America, Queen soon becomes an uncomfortably real and surprisingly hysterical tale of ignorance, complacency, and family dissolution as the stock market takes a dive, and the Siegels bleed cash.
Having made his money in the time share industry (the basis of which is cheap money) as founder and CEO of Westgate Resort, David Siegel is rich and powerful – or was, at least. In the beginning of the film, he tells of conversations with Donald Trump, parties with Miss America contestants, and how he was ‘personally responsible’ for President George W. Bush getting elected; he cannot explain how because, as he says, it ‘may not necessarily have been legal.’
It is, to paraphrase David, a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. The stock market crashes, the company loses business, the family has to hold off finishing construction on their house, and the Siegers try and learn to cut back, whatever that means. It is neither a purely sympathetic account, nor an accusatorial dissection, but merely an incredibly gripping story that is truly a guilty pleasure.
It is all to do with Mrs. Sieger, the third wife of David (and 30 years his junior), who is fascinating, with her material wealth, strange enthusiasm for being documented, and an uncanny ability to be completely out of touch and aware at the same time. She is a caricature to be sure, instantly evoking thoughts of Real Housewives, and it’s really easy to laugh at the ridiculous things she says and does, actions that only come with having way too much money. Here is just one spoiler, but it’ll still be funny: when renting a car from an airport agency, she asks with all seriousness, ‘what is the name of my driver?’
With her apparent flaws and mind-blowing extravagance, she still dares you not to feel sympathetic. She tries as a mother and as a friend, but is simply so out of touch with the reality only because she is living a fantasy. She dares you not to look at your own life and compare relative struggle, and asks if you wouldn’t do the same if you had similar opportunities. Give children a nice home, with pets and toys, while sending them to private school? Throw parties with your favourite people? Use power to influence and engage in politics? Give to charity?
Simply, she dares you not to see her like the rest of us (the ‘us’ being the not super-rich). She shops at Wal-Mart, it’s just that when she is there she buys cartloads of junk. She doesn’t actually directly dare the viewer, for she lacks the self awareness to do anything of the sort. That is the powerful duality that Ms.Greenfield captures (or stumbles into), with Mr. and Mrs. Sieger rising and falling, struggling with change in the American economy, where thousands of employees, a bunch of personal nannies, and a handful of children are directly affected.
And of course, the pets.