It’s so very easy to laugh at Jackie Siegel. She’s just another crass reality-show housewife, Botoxed to the gills, who has somehow wandered into a movie theater trailing her outrageous consumerism behind her like a leopard-skin cape. Except that “The Queen of Versailles” almost accidentally ends up showing how this heedless American princess copes with economic downturn, which is not at all well. And that reflects on all of us who lived the large life for the last few decades — or who merely participated in a society that did so — and are now, with much confusion, paying the price. Jackie’s just more entertainingly tacky about it.
Lauren Greenfield’s documentary was one of the more high-profile entries at this year’s Sundance for all the expected reasons: At its shallowest, the movie indulges a self-satisfied hipster disbelief at its glitzy subjects and settings. But there’s more going on here than classist derision, and the filmmaker uses her footage to try to sort out her feelings. She doesn’t fully succeed, but “Queen of Versailles” is still worthwhile, not because it questions all-American entitlement but because it prompts us to think hard about what, exactly, we believe we’re entitled to.
Jackie, a former engineer, model, and beauty queen, is married to David Siegel, three decades her senior and head of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share vacation property business in the world. When the film opens, it’s 2006 and everything’s gravy: Westgate is raking in millions signing up working-class and lower-middle-class families for condo shares that carry costly monthly fees. (The company is the lending crisis in eerie miniature.) The couple, their eight children, and countless lapdogs and assorted animals live in a gated Florida mansion adorned with faux-royal painted portraits of themselves. David, who hints he had a lot to do with George W. Bush winning the state and the presidency, is interviewed sitting on what looks an awful lot like a throne.
The house is 26,000 square feet but Jackie says “we’re bursting out of the seams.” The only solution is to build an even bigger house — at 90,000 square feet, the largest private residence in America. The couple calls it Versailles, and it’s half completed when the movie opens. It stays that way, because the recession hits and takes Westgate’s business with it — or the illusion of a business, since everything’s built on nonexistent cash.
“The Queen of Versailles” is alternately touching and sickening as it observes the Siegels coming to grips with their new “poverty.” David works too hard to keep his Las Vegas skyscraper from falling into the hands of the bankers — the building’s a Freudian point of pride for him. Toward the end of the film, he just hunkers down in his study and rages at his wife’s bills, his wife’s lifestyle, his wife. To him, she’s just another trophy that has lost its market value.
Greenfield clearly feels for Jackie while trying to film her from an appalled distance, and the movie’s wires consequently get crossed: We sense there’s a more sharply critical portrait that we’re not seeing. It’s both hilarious and pathetic to see this modern-day Marie Antoinette go on yet another shopping binge or cave in to renting a car instead of a limo and then ask the Hertz guy, “Where’s my driver?” Yet “Queen of Versailles” is stranded between pity and censure, and I’m not sure whether Jackie Siegel deserves our sympathy.
On the other hand, the Siegels do represent a tellingly extreme version of our propensity to buy stuff and hope it will fill the emptiness inside. The most scathingly self-aware comments in the film come from 16-year-old Jonquil, a niece rescued by the Siegels from a troubled family. She has gone from dirt-floor poverty to a house where every kid has a Segway yet the pet lizard dies because no one bothers to feed it, and her astonishment is complete. You can see Jonquil working on the Siegels’ oldest biological daughter, who by the end of “The Queen of Versailles” is struggling to understand how buying so much can get you so little.
The megamansion, never finished, is a symbol that’s impossible to resist, and Greenfield doesn’t. Yet “The Queen of Versailles” feels similarly unfinished. Perhaps the director got too close to her subjects to find closure, or perhaps, after five years, she had to call cut. (David, for one, seems to have had enough and has filed a number of lawsuits to try to keep the film from being released.) Or maybe it’s just naive to hope the Siegels will ever see the error of their ways. That’s just one more bill their kids — and ours — will have to pay.