As one of the subject matters himself says in the documentary, The Queen of Versailles, this is a reverse rags-to-riches story: a riches-to-rags, if you will.
Versailles originally started off as a documentary following a wealthy Florida couple, David and Jackie Siegel, who were building the biggest home in America at 90,000 square feet, inspired in part by the Versailles palace in France.
But as filmmaker Lauren Greenfield chronicled their opulent lifestyle, the recession hit. Not only were the Siegels forced to halt the building of their dream home, but their current lifestyle slowly disintegrated as the real estate bubble not only burst David's business, but the family's entire way of being.
While this is a terrible misfortune for the Siegels, it turned out to be quite an unexpected cinematic twist for Greenfield's documentary, as she was there to chronicle the entire unraveling. Needless to say, it turned her project into quite a different film than what she and the Siegels' initially set out to do. It's one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe it stories that not even a fiction writer could script, so jaw-dropping is their consumption and so tragic is their fall.
Siegel is a self-made billionaire who founded time-share company Westgate Resorts and Jackie is a former model who, at 46 years old, is 31 years younger than her husband. They fly around the world on a private jet, live in a 26,000 square foot "starter" mansion and have a house staff of 19. Jackie has an extensive shoe collection, including a pair of $17,000 Gucci boots made from crocodile skin. They love their dogs so much that one is turned in to a rug when he dies while another is stuffed and put on display in a clear box in the hallway.
Given all this information prior to the film, one wants to hate this family instantly and watch their downfall like one watching a wealthy politician or corporate titan's fall from grace. But the Siegels are surprisingly unpretentious. The couple has seven children, all of whom are refreshingly normal and well adjusted, given their extreme wealth. Their eighth child is a niece of Jackie's whom they took in from desperate circumstances and are now raising. They are good people. Their staff adores them. Though the Siegels' lifestyle is almost comical in its extravagance, they've worked hard for it and managed to stay humble in the process.
In that way, the couple represents all of us struggling in this recession. Just like childrens' story books and kids television create grand, over-the-top worlds to make a point, the Siegels' grandiose lifestyle being taken away from them serves as a grand-scale example of how we all have suffered to varying degrees in this economic meltdown.
What makes it an entertaining film is the how the Siegels handle it. Jackie brings a surprising humor to it, while her husband isolates himself more and more. Through a series of interviews in an Upstairs/Downstairs fashion, we get a glimpse of how their downfall also affects their staff and employees at the time-share company. They let their laid-off driver borrow one of their fancy cars on weekends so he can work as a chauffeur at weddings. One of their children's nannies converts their daughters' large outdoor dollhouse into her own room so she can have a place to live.
The 19 staffers dwindle down to four. Jackie starts cooking dinners and she takes the kids on their first commercial flight. Christmas gifts come from Walmart and the house is littered with dog poop because those who used to pick up after the un-toilet trained dogs no longer work there.
Though the Siegels' new reality may still be considered extravagant for most people, the fact is, many of us have made adjustments and struggled to save what we have left from disappearing totally down the drain. Watching the Siegels' wealth slowly drip away is a sobering reminder that we all have our own American Dream to lose.
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