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The Queen of Versailles

July 28, 2012
The Queen of Versailles

“The Emperor has no clothes”, goes the old saying, usually talking about something that is obvious to everyone but nobody will say out loud. But there’s another take on it: the sudden realization that some big, impressive personage is actually rather ridiculous. Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles offers exactly that kind of look behind the curtains and into the personal life of the immediate family of timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife, Jackie.

American culture is nothing if not aspirational, especially since the 1980s when Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was on the air. And yet the bizarre twist is how often people aspire to a caricature; one of my favorite observations is that cruise ships offer middle-income vacationers what they think rich people must live like, down to the comically stereotyped idea of “fancy food” that Kathy Lee sang about. Timeshares are sort of like that, but forever.

A whole documentary could be made starting from Greenfield’s footage and interviews just about the timeshare business. People already on vacations in fleabag motels are offered a free gift for submitting to a sales pitch. The agents — who refer to these customers as “mooches” — push hard to close what amounts to a mortgage on one week a year in their resort. Siegel’s oldest son from his first marriage asserts that these sorts of vacation properties save everything from marriages and families to lives in a speech that sounds as if it’s been ripped from Glengarry Glen Ross.

But the film’s real subject is Jackie’s life, and its rags-to-riches arc. It may be comfortable to project some sort of empty-headed image onto a former model and beauty pageant winner who was almost certainly married as a trophy wife by a man thirty years her senior. But Jackie Siegel is by no objective measure a stupid woman; she earned her degree in computer engineering at RPI and worked for IBM in her hometown of Binghamton, New York.

On the other hand, Jackie Siegel is an incredibly stupid woman, who over the course of her marriage to one of the wealthiest men in the country has lost all sense of proportion or ability to operate in the real world. The film’s funniest moments — and there are plenty of funny moments — usually come from Jackie saying or doing something completely insane, and yet having no apparent clue that it is, in fact, insane.

And the nuttiest thing about them is how atrocious her taste is. Siegel doesn’t really care what his home or clothing looks like, and their eight kids are all young enough not to count, but Jackie’s taste gives new definition to “tacky” and “gaudy”.

But the story really takes off when the 2008 financial crisis hits and the housing bubble bursts. Timeshare sales are practically the definition of subprime mortgages. They take a ten-percent down payment and borrow against the mortgage from a bank for the interim; if they can’t convert the mortage into cash, they can’t repay the banks, and a timeshare is probably the first thing a struggling family dumps.

The Siegels are left in the lurch, halfway through building a ninety-thousand square foot monstrosity of a house in Orlando, since they evidently can’t deal with “only” the thirty-thousand square feet in their current mcmansion. Of course despite its name the new house isn’t really patterned after Versailles, but after the top floors of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas — what middle-class people think rich people must live like.

If Jackie’s whims and tastes were funny before they’re hilarious now. She talks about cutting back while filling at least two SUVs with merchandise from Wal-Mart; I don’t care how many kids you have, no family needs three copies of “Operation”. It’s a long way back down to Binghamton — where Hertz car rentals don’t come with drivers, by the way — and I have to admit that there’s a lot of enjoyment in watching her fall.

It may be cruel, hollow schadenfreude, but I’m sure that Jackie will never fall down to anywhere near what the rest of the world considers a normal life. And I have to say, after seeing what happens to a place like that when they have to let go the cleaning staff my little one-bedroom apartment doesn’t look that bad after all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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