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The Queen of Versailles

by Katie de Klee / 10.06.2013

In 2007 when Lauren Greenfield started making her documentary The Queen of Versailles, she intended it to be about the billionaire couple who were building their ludicrous dream home: the biggest ever private residence in the States. But tragedy struck the family (and success the resulting film) when the 2009 financial crisis forced these rich Americas to face the loss of their fortune and their palatial home and turned Greenfield’s documentary into a pretty poignant ‘riches-to-rags’ kinda tale.

Jackie Siegel, the films focal character, dropped out of an engineering degree when she realised that her looks could get her further than her education, a sad reality for a woman who must have been quite bright. The film opens with her sitting on her 30-plus-years-older, wealthy husband David’s knee and laughingly reassuring the camera that he doesn’t yet need Viagra.

Jackie, who won Mrs (not Miss – at the time she was married to her first rich husband) Florida 1990, married David Siegel, who’d made his billions in the Westgate Resort time-share business in Florida. The couple have eight children and more than double that number of household staff, and are proudly building their dream home, modelled on the Palace of Versailles in Paris. Their Florida replica spans nearly eight and a half square kilometers, has 10 kitchens, 30 bathrooms (so no one has to queue for the mirror?), and ice rink and a health spa.

The house could have been something out of a Scott-Fitzgerald, and the Siegels are filmed hosting a few Gatsby-style parties, with beauty queen contestants lining the stairs and their champagne glasses never empty.

The fly on the wall documentary, however, then turns a little sadder as the Westgate Resorts lose millions nad have to lay off their staff. The family’s servants are quick to follow. In the office this means empty cubicles, in their home it means kitchen floors littered with dog shit, dead pets in dirty cages and McDonalds for family supper.

Loath though it is to take pleasure from other people’s miseries, there is an ironic satisfaction to watching David Siegel’s fortune slip away, as he made most of it selling properties to people who couldn’t afford to spend the money. But the family, particularly Jackie, are hard to dislike.

The Queen of Versailles reveals the sadder consequences of the trophy and the nightmare of the unravelled American Dream. It’s also a good reminder than anything as fleeting as fortune, youth or beauty is no good foundation for happiness. You’re sure to be left at the end with only a feeling of pity for the Siegels, the films effectiveness most real in the awkwardness and stagnant silences while the camera rolls.

The 2013 Encounters Documentary Film Festival runs until the 16th June in Cape Town and Joburg. Check the full program here.

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