For the first half of “The Queen of Versailles,” you gaze at Jackie and David Siegel with fascinated disgust. She’s a 43-year-old mother of eight, a former model and beauty queen with an artificially enhanced super-bosom. He’s a 74-year-old magnate, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world. They are so rich, their wealth almost defies comprehension. They take the limo to McDonald’s. When Jackie goes to rent a car, she asks the befuddled guy manning the counter, “What’s my driver’s name?”
The family lives in Orlando, in a mansion that has 17 bathrooms and sprawls over 26,000 square feet. But the Siegels decide they need larger digs. They will build a house with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a skating rink, a bowling alley, a gym and a full-sized baseball field. The architecture of the home will be inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France and the Paris Las Vegas hotel.
That was the plan, anyway. Director Lauren Greenfield started shooting “The Queen of Versailles” in 2007, when the Siegels were on track to earn $1 billion, and kept filming after the stock market crashed and the bottom fell out of the timeshare industry, taking the family fortune with it. By then, construction was under way on what was intended to be the largest single-roof home in America.The movie is filled with moments that make you laugh and cringe at the same time: In one scene, she discovers that her daughter’s pet lizard has starved to death in its terrarium (in her defense, the girl says that she couldn’t get anyone to take her to the pet store to buy the animal food). In another, more horrifying scene, Jackie discovers her Pomeranian’s puppies are missing, and fears that her son’s pet boa, which slithers around loose in the house, may have eaten them.
Jackie’s relationship to her children (one of them a niece she is raising as her own) is tenuous — they relate to her more as a substitute teacher than a parent — and her connection to her husband grows increasingly brittle as their finances worsen. At first, she proudly plays the role of trophy wife. Later, no amount of low-cut cleavage or Botox injections can prevent David from calling her “an old hag” on camera or shrinking away from her when she tries to give him a Christmas kiss.
The heart of “The Queen of Versailles” rests with the increasingly troubled couple, whose divide grows larger with every financial setback, and especially Jackie, who seems either unwilling or unable to see that her husband, disappointed by his own failure and annoyed by her indefatigable spirit, is slowly growing to hate her.
By the end, the movie has pulled off a small miracle: You become absorbed in the lives of these people for who they are and not what they own.