“I don’t want to give you lessons in self-denial and social responsibility,” an art dealer tells her billionaire boy client in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, by way of refusing to entertain his demand to buy the Rothko Chapel. “Because I don’t believe for a second you’re as crude as you sound.” This scene occurs in David Cronenberg’s soon-to-be-released movie, but the question of whether “self-denial” is a “social responsibility”—particularly when it comes to rich so nouveau it doesn’t realize its appetites strike others as crude—is more vividly brought to life in Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, The Queen of Versailles.
The titular royal is Jackie Siegel, a fortyish IBM engineer turned model turned trophy wife to seventyish time-share mogul David Siegel. Jackie is a shopping addict who admits that she wouldn’t be raising eight kids (seven natural, one “inherited”) if she couldn’t afford a staff of nannies. As the film begins, the Siegel clan’s 26,000-square-foot Florida mansion teems with bodies (kids, maids, dogs) and accumulated detritus. Rather than cut back or clean house, the Siegels are halfway through construction on a new “house,” a complex the size of Fantasyland in the form of a replica of Versailles—modified, natch, to include elements of Vegas’s Paris hotel.
And then comes the crash. The Siegel fortune comes from Westgate Resorts, whose salesmen are indoctrinated in the nobility of talking working-class Americans into buying vacation time-shares they probably can’t afford. But after the 2008 market collapse, the customer base no longer has access to quick and easy credit. Westgate is soon unable to pay outstanding costs on its new flagship property in Las Vegas, the Siegels have to halt construction on Versailles, and Jackie and her kids must begrudgingly adopt a more conservative lifestyle. The matriarch is quick to play the victim. “The banks made us do it,” Jackie claims after Westgate lays off 6,000 workers. “I thought that rescue money was supposed to be passed on to the common people,” she says of the bailout. “Or you know, us.”
I’ve seen The Queen of Versailles twice, and both times the audience laughed frequently at the Siegel family’s sheer tackiness: their life-size oil paintings of themselves, the piles of expensive garbage stacked throughout the family manse, the pet poop drying on what seems like every carpet, the limo Jackie takes to McDonald’s. Schadenfreude is fair play, I guess, but bad taste and questionable hygiene are not crimes—or really even all that LOL-worthy. Putting aside David’s admission that he “got George W. elected president, personally” through means that “may not necessarily have been legal,” the Siegels’ real offense is their complete obliviousness to the way they’re perceived or to the fact that many find how they’ve made or spent their fortune offensive to begin with. It simply never occurred to them that just because they could build the biggest private home in the United States doesn’t mean they should.
Eventually, it emerges that David can either turn over the Vegas Westgate to the bank and lose the $400 million he has already invested while keeping the rest of his empire and all of his personal assets, or he can delay, potentially allowing the property to fall into bankruptcy, and risk losing everything. He picks the latter, and the implication is that there might be something righteous to his stubborn refusal to kowtow. Fueling Versailles is a nagging, unresolved tension between what seems like the filmmaker’s sympathetic portrayal of David’s unwillingness to compromise as an act of libertarian boldness—in the land of the free (market), who has the right to police anyone else’s asset management or consumption?—and the damning evidence Greenfield presents of the family’s ugly gluttony.
Greenfield, a photographer who inserts stills of luridly colorful tableaux into her video vérité, followed the Siegel family for several years, though the film’s time frame is fuzzy, and she has admitted that material presented in Versailles as though it occurred pre-crash was actually shot later. The film hardly feels hastily pasted together: Greenfield filmed long enough to document physical changes in her subjects. For one thing, the oldest biological Siegel kid ages on camera from a chubby, awkward preteen to a coltish teenager, a queen-bee type whose notable poise is only belied by the constellations of acne visible in close-up. It’s a powerful visual metaphor for maturity as a process: As conscious as we’ve all become of economic reality in recent years, we have a long way to go.
How far have the Siegels come? Versailles‘s conclusion on that matter is complicated by a defamation lawsuit David Siegel filed in concurrence with the Sundance premiere and updated recently to implicate distributor Magnolia Pictures. David, whose filing calls the documentary “a staged theatrical production, albeit using nonprofessionals in the starring roles (as themselves),” insists the film’s portrayal of his fall from glory is exaggerated and inaccurate. He has since managed to reverse Westgate’s fortunes. Given that he’s apparently back to predatory business as usual, perhaps he’s most regretful of the contrite stance he seems to take in the film’s final moments, in which he drops catchphrases (“We need to live within our means”) suggesting he has learned the error of his hyper-capitalist ways. But Siegel needn’t worry—in the context of the film, this sudden turnaround reads at worst as total bullshit and at best as too little, too late.