Thursday, July 19, 2012

“The Queen Of Versailles” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary, “The Queen Of Versailles”, which played at the Sundance Film Festival. 



When a billionaire family loses much of their wealth in the economic downturn of 2008, can they recover before all is lost?



David and Jackie Siegel seem to be living the perfect life – in his mid-70’s, he’s an extremely wealthy man who has earned his fortune in the time share business and his wife, a former model and beauty contest winner, is devoted to him, despite their age difference (she is 30 years younger).  Having given him seven children – plus taking in one who was abandoned by one of her relatives – this large family enjoys conspicuous consumption in their 26,000 square foot south Florida mansion.  Despite their large home, they decide that they need an even bigger space, so they start construction on a palatial estate they call “Versailles” because it was inspired by a trip to France where they saw the Versailles palace. 

Concurrently, David is expanding his business into Las Vegas, where he’s just built an immense condominium for his company is selling expensive time shares to vacationers who can’t really afford them.   While he’s collaborating with an adult son from a previous marriage in order to build their individual wealth, serious complications ensue when the stock market crashes in September of 2008, signaling the beginning of the nation’s economic downturn.  With easy credit no longer available to David or his potential customers, his business swiftly plummets to the point that he is forced to layoff thousands of employees – including much of the service staff that helps Jackie around their household. 

Once David downsizes, he realizes that he can no longer afford construction on Versailles, so he chooses to put it on the market at a greatly reduced price in the hope that he can see some kind of return on all of the money that he has poured into it at this point.  Jackie, however, is unable to live within a budget due to her acquisitive, self-indulgent nature.  Eventually, David becomes disenchanted with their marriage because he sees his entire family as spendthrifts and leeches who take him completely for granted.  Under great stress to hold on to his business before it completely fails, can he save his fortune without losing his family?



If I had to pick a word that best describes what I felt while viewing “The Queen Of Versailles”, I suppose that word would be schadenfreude.  With such garish displays of their wealth, I found it hard to root for The Siegels – although I guess that some people would admire them for having built a fortune after coming from modest beginnings.  But for me, it seems that The Siegels feel that they never have enough and that now, they are getting their just desserts.  Even David himself describes his situation as something of a “riches to rags” story. 

One quibble I have with this documentary is its title.  To call this film “The Queen Of Versailles” suggests its focus is on Jackie Siegel, which I believe is incorrect; to me, the movie is about the family dynamic as a whole, especially that between husband and wife – especially how it seems to deteriorate over time as their financial situation grows increasingly desperate and David is under tremendous pressure to retain his wealth. 

If you have an opportunity to see “The Queen Of Versailles”, by all means, please do so.  Its morality tale for our times is a lesson to be learned – and re-learned, if need be.  An interesting post-script to this movie is the fact that Siegel is currently in the process of suing the filmmakers because he feels that he was misrepresented in the film and as a result, comes off badly.  From what little I know about this lawsuit, it has little merit and Siegel’s main (if not only) purpose behind filing it is to save face. 



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