The Queen of Versailles
by M. Faust
How many people do you know who were talked into buying time-shares that they wish they could get rid of them? They’re probably the perfect audience for this documentary, which may also be seen by a lot of people who thought they were buying a ticket for Farewell My Queen. (And vice-versa.) The subjects here are not Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, but an American couple who, at least as the film begins, don’t mind being compared to them: When we first see them, they’re posing for a portrait on what appears to be a gold throne.
Florida businessman David Siegel, though his privately held company Westgate Resorts, made millions in the time-share industry. When he and third wife Jackie decide to build a new house for themselves and their eight kids, the listed everything they wanted in it, including lots of room for grand entertaining. Before long, it expanded to 26,000 feet, and would have been the largest single-roof private house in the United States.
But then came 2008. Not only did the evaporation of easy money stop people from buying time-shares, it also put a crimp into all of Westgate, which was funded by regular cheap loans. At particular risk was Siegel’s opulent new Las Vegas hotel. Work on the new house, which was modeled on Versailles, stopped and it was put on the market. Thousands of Westgate workers were laid off. The Siegels reduced their personal staff from 19 to four.
That last detail may have killed any sympathy you were starting to develop. Queen of Versailles walks that edge throughout. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield lucked into a dream subject here: She began filming the Siegels with their permission in 2007, for a documentary about the building of the house. They kept talking to her after the economic collapse. And she is able to get the film into theaters at a time when many people are eager to see anything bad about the one percent.
It’s to the film’s credit that you’re not asked to despise the Siegels, even if you are often led to have cheap laughs at their expense. The 70ish David becomes more withdrawn as the film goes on. But his wife, who is 30 years younger, has no compunction about talking to the camera. She’s not a stupid woman, having been on the dean’s list at RIT. Yet her fading Barbie doll looks and preposterous boob job, prominently displayed at all times, make it hard to feel very sorry for her. And it’s hard to fight a suspicion that she is sometimes performing for the camera, making herself look more clueless than she really is.
Watch the trailer for Queen of Versailles
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