Somehow the portrait of one extremely unusual and entirely dysfunctional family offers a broader insight into the state of America today
If you missed The Queen of Versailles on the BBC’s Storyville last night, I recommend you look it up on iPlayer. The documentary chronicles the life of Jacqueline and David Siegel: she’s a former beauty queen, he’s 30 years her senior and runs the largest timeshare business in the US, and together they set out to build ‘Versailles’, the largest house in America.
Lauren Greenfield’s photographic project suddenly changed direction in the course of filming, when in 2008 the Siegels’ credit-hungry business suddenly found itself starved of cash and deeply indebted, and their big, brash American dream goes belly-up. Versailles is put on the market unfinished for $100m, unsurprisingly there are no buyers, and eventually the bank forecloses on the property (pictured below, as it looks today).
I first became interested in the Siegels when reviewing Robert Frank’s book, The High-Beta Rich. He uses the Siegels as an example of how the fortunes of America’s richest are becoming increasingly volatile, and how their dramatic reversals in fortune have an effect on everyone – from government revenues to the myriad industries dependent on the profligate spending of the rich.
Greenfield, speaking at The Frontline Club, where I watched the documentary last night, said she first became interested in Jacqueline when she met her while photographing Donatella Versace. Versace is hardly a boring subject, but Greenfield found Jacqueline even more compelling. Watching the Queen of Versailles, you can see why.
Jacqueline is almost impossible to pin down: you want very much to dislike her and yet somehow, that’s impossible. She’s not stupid (she trained as an engineer) but she’s almost wilfully blinkered: she says she had no idea Versailles was at risk, and sometimes talks wistfully about how she ‘just’ wishes for $300m to solve their debt worries, while the Seigel’s overworked army of Filipino maids tearfully confess they haven’t seen their children for 21 years, and say they wish they could just save enough to go home.
Jacqueline’s lived in poverty before, and talks stoically of how she could cope with poverty again, but throws money around without thought. She’s got awful taste: she wears low-cut bright pink tops revealing shiny, surgically-enlarged breasts the size of watermelons, and has her favourite dogs stuffed or turned into throws when they die.
The audience at the Frontline Club laughed hardest, and most cruelly, at the Siegel’s bad taste: a portrait of David and Jacqueline as knight-in-shining-armour and medieval-damsel-in-distress, or a clock decorated with pictures of their eight children, with David as the hour hand. (OK, so maybe it is quite funny.)
And yet there’s something redeeming about Jacqueline. She’s loving and loyal, even to her increasingly remote husband – her first husband was abusive, one suspects she doesn’t ask for much from men – and it’s clear she’s not simply a gold digger. She’s almost child-like in her openness (and yet she’s far from sheltered) and is incredibly funny, although it’s not always clear whether her humour is intentional.
David’s thirty years her senior, but she says they never had to use Viagra and then adds, deadpan ‘but you know, it’s always nice to know that’s an option in the future.’ ‘That’s what $5 million dollars of marble looks like’ she says, gesturing to a roomful of cardboard boxes, before wandering off distractedly saying ‘I have to kiss my dog.’
The Queen of Versailles is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, mainly thanks to Jacqueline and the chaos of her huge household: the drama of Christmas morning, when the 16 year old’s python is on the loose somewhere in the house, and two puppies – presents for the younger Siegels – go missing, was a highlight (but only because there’s a happy ending).
David Siegel reminded me a little of ‘Cap’m Charlie Croker’ in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, and some of the parallels are uncanny, apart from that Siegel is entirely loathsome and as far as I can tell, without any redeeming feature or milligram of moral fibre.
‘Everybody wants to be rich,’ he says at one point. And ‘if you can‘t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich.’ It’s one of those sayings that sticks – Siegel’s timeshare business was built on his insight that people are greedy and want to ‘feel rich’, the US’s sub-prime crisis could be explained by the same insight, as could the Siegel’s downfall – they wanted to feel rich, but their debt-fuelled consumption meant that, when it came to hard cash, they were never wealthy at all.
And this is perhaps what makes The Queen of Versailles so fascinating: somehow, the portrait of one, extremely unusual and entirely dysfunctional family, offers a broader insight into the state of America today.
Read more by Sophie McBain