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December 24, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

by Franz Patrick


Queen of Versailles, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

In 2008, when David Siegel is asked why he and his wife decided to build the largest home in America, the CEO of Westgate Resorts simply says, “Because I can” with such a mix of honest arrogance and yet it becomes clear that Siegel has reason to be proud of his successes because he has built his success from the ground up. When the financial crisis hit on September 2008, however, the construction of their dream home, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, comes to a sudden halt. Siegel and his family has no choice but to sell their priceless possessions, from private planes to antiques, to cover their losses. Even then Siegel still has to come up with over two hundred million dollars to pay the banks to prevent them from taking over the PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas.

The subjects of “The Queen of Versailles” are easy to judge because they are so filthy rich that it’s impossible not to wonder what they plan to do with all that money, but director Lauren Greenfield maintains control over her project by simply showing us what’s going on and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about David and Jackie Siegel as human beings. It could have been a documentary rife with exploitative elements, a “how the mighty have fallen!” theme in its center, but instead opts for a more thoughtful approach.

To my surprise, Mrs. Siegel is very likable. One would think that just because she has everything she wants and needs, she would be a vile blonde imbecile who considers being kind to others as a chore. The material quickly tracks her humble background as a country girl up until her name is worth billions, culminating to a visit to her hometown with her young children after the financial collapse. Since we learn about where she comes from and her level of resilience, we understand how she can remain strong despite almost losing everything. Still, there are some moments during her interviews where most of us can tell that she is struggling to hold onto her emotions.

The word “overconsumption” is not once mentioned but its idea is always present. We are given a tour around the unfinished mansion with its two tennis courts, indoor ice skating rink, and a massive staircase usually recognized in period movies that tell stories of high class societies. We look around at the Siegel’s “smaller” home, still gargantuan, full of expensive china and other priceless collectibles, toys and gadgets abound that, if donated, can make a village full of children happy, and so many dogs roaming around that you’d think the family had adopted a pound. We also get to watch Jackie shop at Walmart and buying at least four cartful of toys, despite supposedly being on a budget, for her kids’ Christmas presents. Do they really need five sets of the same board game?

A case can be made concerning a psychological connection between David and Jackie’s constant need to have more and the point in their lives, specifically their youth, when they didn’t have much. Overconsumption and overcompensation have become synonymous.

“The Queen of Versailles,” for all its images of excess and extravagance, makes me thankful and humbled for what I have. Although some reviewers claimed that we are bound to feel a certain level of schadenfreude as the film unfolds, I can say with complete honesty that I did not feel that way. I didn’t pity them; I empathized with them. I may not agree with the way the Siegels live their lives, but I rooted for them to recover. I liked Jackie even though sometimes she lacks a hint of common sense. Most importantly, I felt concern for the children. One of them is shown to have grown a habit in sleeping on one of the nanny’s beds. It may suggest that the children don’t always receive or feel the love from their parents on a basic level which supports that there are things that money can never buy.

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