The weather is Dublin has been very strange of late. Winging from heat to rain it is making life in Dublin very difficult to dress for. So when I needed to kill some time I decided to do the best thing one can do in that weather; go to the cinema. Luckily for me the The Queen of Versailles was showing the in the Lighthouse cinema.
The Queen of Versailles follows the fortunes of the Siegal family who live in Florida. David Siegal is the boss of Westgate Resorts, a successful time share company and he is currently married to his third wife Jackie, a beauty queen and lady of leisure. They were billionaires and to reflect this they decided to build a giant home based on Versailles. 90,000 square foot of tacky, it has room for thirty bathrooms, a baseball pitch, ice skating rink, health spa and many, many other things. This was until the credit crunch and financial crisis hit and their riches begin to evaporate.
The sheer wealth on display in this movie was astounding. Their current house was a huge decadent property with pillars, marble tubs and a huge kitchen. Despite this the house was bursting at the seams with stuff, children and dogs. They threw lavish parties, spent a fortune on clothes and hob-nobbed with rich and powerful politicians and celebrities. David even makes the scary assertion that he was responsible for getting George W Bush elected, although he would not say now as it was “probably not legal.”
After the crash it was shocking how the family adjusted their priorities. In one particular striking scene, Jackie is shopping for Christmas and rather than carefully gathering gifts within her budget she packed three trollies full of toys, without checking the prices. The nannies then unloaded the cars and in a fantastic shot we see them carrying a new bike past a garage full of unused bikes. There is also the incident of the discovery of a dead lizard. When Jackie tries to question the children about how the lizard dies, one sulked that the staff would not bring her to the pet shop and another was surprised that they had a lizard at all. These are just two examples of the ridiculous wealth and privilege that they were accustomed to and how despite them having come from poverty themselves, they took it totally for granted.
Despite this spoiled lifestyle laden with health the family were under a heavy burden. Not just in terms of their own family and lifestyle but in the knowledge that their mistakes have affected the lives of thousands. In one scene David describes with tears in his eyes how he had to let go 5,000 employees in one day. The stress of having to save the company to help maintain the supports of their employees created tension in their household and I could not imagine living with that burden.
But through this adversity the Siegal’s generosity became apparent. Jackie sent an old family friend money to try and stop her home going into foreclosure. She also set up a thrift shop for the local community, with much of the stock coming from her own home and the business. The Siegal’s also helped a friend to set up a driving business after his property business crashed, letting him borrow their cars to drive for clients. In addition to their seven children they also took in Jackie’s niece who was being neglected at home, it was heartbreaking to hear her describe her bedroom as the “dirt room” as she slept on a floor. These generous and warm acts were a really nice counterpoint to the gaudiness and waste of their spending.
One of the biggest surprises of the movie was Jackie herself. From the trailer you would be forgiven for thinking she was a vapid, trophy wife but this was not the case at all. On graduation from High School, she went to work at IBM, her small town’s local employer. She decided to train as an engineer rather than a secretary so she would not have to answer to anyone and would have a good career. She did this at a time when women engineers were even less common than they are today. This is a strange start for a woman who later would become a third wife to a billionaire who she admits took her some time to fall in love with. Jackie seemed a bit clueless about the families finance. She knew they were in trouble but her efforts to intervene were rebuffed with annoyance by David. She said it best herself when she stated that she “was not stupid” but was not being given the information. I can only assume that the seduction of a life of leisure outweighed her desire to be an independent woman.
The impact of family was another strong theme in the documentary. The banks said that they would forgive all of David Seigal’s debts if he just gave up one building. He refused to as he had dedicated it to his parents who loved Las Vegas. To him this was fulfilling a dream that his Dad held, to become a big deal in Vegas. Despite all of his advisers telling him to sell he refused to. He was then backed up by his son from a previous marriage who knew it was the wrong choice but supported him anyway!
This staunch dedication to family did not seem to stretch to his own children however. I was astounded to hear that he had no money set aside for any of his seven children, his niece or any of his children from his previous marriage. We hear that he left his first wife in poverty to raise his first three children. He also seemed to neglect his family emotionally as he became more withdrawn and angry through the move. For a man who would bankrupt a business to hold onto a building that he was emotionally attached to due to his parents it was dazzling to see him disregard his own family.
But the main thing that I will take from this documentary is the sadness of the Filipino Nanny. She has been separated from her own children for over a decade and they do not even call her Mum. She cries as she thinks about them and I couldn’t help but shed a few myself. Her biggest wish is to build a house of her own and that is why she moved to America. She talks about her father and how all he wanted was a concrete house but he died before he could make that dream a reality. Her interviews were heartbreaking and I wish her all the happiness for the future.
The Queen of Versailles is a great portrait of the American dream gone wild and how it can crash and fail. The movie is full of hilarious moments, where the family seem outlandish and carefree as they live the high life. This is balanced by the disaster than unfolds after the crash and the stories of personal loss. You can’t help but admire the people in the documentary who are trying to put their lives together after lifetimes of hard work that were erased. If you are interested in the personal stories of people affected by the credit crunch The Queen of Versailles is well worth a watch.
Currently showing the the Lighthouse cinema and is directed by Lauren Greenfield.