Queen of Versailles: laughing at ‘the 1%’

A film about a super-rich couple who madly plan to build an American Versailles is a raucous exercise in schadenfreude.

David Bowden

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The Queen of Versailles was one of the most hotly discussed hits of the documentary circuit last year, and for those who caught it on BBC4 this week, it isn’t hard to see why. This is a film that starts off as a simple study in consumerist excess and wealthy decadence – following billionaire David Siegel and his wife Jackie’s attempts to build the largest house in America, modelled on the Palace of Versailles – which, as they grant director Lauren Greenfield extraordinarily intimate access over the years as the financial crisis hit, turns into a 90-minute snapshot of modern America.

It’s a study in rampant excess, overflowing with documentary riches. David Siegel isn’t just a billionaire but is also America’s biggest timeshare mogul, not only engaged in recreating a latter-day Versailles but a latter-day Tower of Babel – a giant timeshare apartment bloc, slap bang in the middle of Las Vegas. He boasted of having played a key and underhand role in putting George W Bush in the White House. His wife Jackie is a blonde, silicone-boobed former model, so indignant at having grown up in a three-bed house with only one bathroom that she had ensured their home had 30 bathrooms (this was their pre-Versailles house).

Even with their enormous abode, they were often tripping over the sheer amount of stuff they had packed it full of: magnificently, her teenage children were able to kill a pet lizard they didn’t know they had. So perfectly formed was their rags-to-riches, nouveau riche story that they were even looking after Jackie’s poor teenaged niece, in a seeming nod to the The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Then, with delicious irony, it all begins to go wrong. Siegel’s business model was seemingly built on selling sub-prime mortgages, and he had leveraged most of his fortune in building the Las Vegas project. Their Versailles home remained half-built as his empire crumbled and its value plummeted, with his own real-estate agents bewildered by how to sell this $100million white elephant languishing in the Orlando hills. Even the resourceful Jackie, having cut back to take commercial rather than private airlines, finds herself shocked that the rental-car agency didn’t provide a driver. They spent their time bemoaning the greed of the bankers (for having screwed the economy with sub-prime mortgages) and the failure of Obama’s bailout package to get their lives back on track; yet they just about held themselves together and came out valuing what was really important.

In other hands, this could have seemed like the plot of an Eighties rom-com starring Goldie Hawn; but Versailles director Greenfield is a Harvard-educated artist and photographer. Her film is not merely a raucous exercise in schadenfreude, but also a serious piece of anthropological study in the souring of the American Dream: Siegel had made his money by selling poor people a taste of the unobtainable good life and lost it in the pursuit of his own ridiculous dreams.

The Queen of Versailles is a beautifully made film; aided by Greenfield’s genuinely compelling subjects, it has the richly layered contours of a morality play. Siegel himself appears like an oafish King Lear figure (a point underscored by his cold, businesslike relationship with his own son); his incomprehension at the workings of business (let alone capitalism) seems to serve as a one-man rejoinder to all the hot’n’horny talk by Randian philosophers over the brilliant acumen of rich entrepreneurs. When we first meet him, he is sat upon his very own throne; when we leave, he is sat in his study, out of camera shot, bemoaning his greedy family for not knowing the value of money.

Yet if Siegel brings to mind a figure from classical tragedy, Jackie emerges as something a lot more entertaining: a sassy broad with smarts and a heart of gold, ripped from the pages of the best pulp fiction. A former IBM engineer and mortuary assistant before turning to modelling, she actually seemed to have a (faintly) better grasp of economics than her husband did, and managed her family’s decline with an ‘easy-come-easy-go’ grace and dignity. We leave her tucking into a Christmas breakfast of caviar, which perhaps undercut the ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags’ narrative the filmmakers were going for, but you didn’t begrudge her a bite.

Yet for all its entertaining qualities, as a morality play the film is on trickier territory. Siegel himself declares at the end that the lesson to be learned is that his failing is the same as everyone else’s: we all wanted ‘too much stuff’ and we have lived beyond our means for too long. Greenfield could well have presented this as a prime piece of dramatic irony – where the joke is on the protagonist rather than the viewer – but the same sentiment is echoed by all her interviewees: that money and stuff do not make you happier. Yes, we had an interview with the Siegels’ Filipino maid, who wept as she talked about how her father dreamt of a concrete house but could only afford a concrete tomb – the film’s one vague suggestion that money and stuff do have a certain value. But we never got more insight beyond the observation that some people have too much money and some too little.

It’s fine not to serve up moral lessons in both documentary and art; but Greenfield seemed happy enough to offer a few swipes at Siegel’s folly to build everything bigger for the sake of it and his need to lay off thousands of workers when it all went wrong. The flipside – that it was Siegel’s crazed ambition for more which created those jobs in the first place – doesn’t necessarily redeem him, but it doesn’t damn him either.

In the end, The Queen of Versailles never quite escapes the impression that it is a variation on the dubious voyeurism of ‘ruin porn’, with rundown factories and choirs of urban poor replaced by the half-built mansions of ‘the one per cent’. The film is a stunning snapshot of extreme wealth, for sure, but ultimately it offers as much genuine insight into what prosperity and ambition mean for modern America as Les Misérables does.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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