The Queen of Versailles
The Queen of Versailles, directed by documentary photographer Lauren Greenfield, was not what I expected. Lauren Greenfield may be more publicly known from her commercial work, the “#LikeAGirl” ads for the feminine hygiene brand Always. Her personal projects include a photo book at an inpatient center for eating disorders, a series on money and youth in L.A., and photo series about girls in culture.
The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about American wealth. It set out to follow the family of David Siegel, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, as they began to build themselves a literal American palace, modeled after Versailles. But their $100 million dream home was not yet finished when the 2008 market crash hit — and the film follows Jackie and David’s Siegel’s life from then on.
The beginning of the movie, where David Siegel holds Miss America parties and flirts with 20-year-old contestants, and Jackie lives the life of a wealthy socialite, sets up an expectation for something much more shallow. Donald Trump, jarringly, pops up several times in relation to the family. Siegel is shown photographed with the Bushes and conservative elites. What I expected was an hour and a half on a family who lived in their shallow, white conservative bubble of outrageous wealth and spending.
What Greenfield crafted, however, was a beautiful and vulnerable parallel of this family’s troubles and relationships with a universal story of financial security in America. Jackie talks also about how she and her husband had eight kids and established a lavish lifestyle because they expected security of income. The slow chaos and decay of families’ expected quality of life work as an observation of our current conception of the American dream.
With interviews of their nannies who struggle to support families on work visas and Jackie’s friends from her small hometown, Greenfield is able to paint a picture of a community of people at different levels of society just trying to make it in the world. David Siegel talks about how the dream is to be able to give your kids a better life than what you have. It’s clear in his apparent inability to be happy with his family, buried in documents trying to find money to save what he built, that the film is about how all of these families struggles so hard to keep that dream alive once the financial crisis hit.
Since the movie’s release in 2012, a lot has changed. Presumably, Greenfield’s references to Donald Trump and his golden tower were not made with prescient knowledge of his presidency, but The Queen of Versailles is an important film to look back on to understand how we have gotten to where we are.
Greenfield, in these complicated vignettes of life, has created a portrait of a family that we can see ourselves in. Siegel’s efforts to focus on their family and relearn the things that matter, even as David Siegel prepares to push towards bankruptcy to save his company and his palace, is what makes this film so engaging and tragic. I left with great affection for Jackie, a woman who is self-made in her own right — who worked to get a degree in engineering, a modeling career, and freedom from an abusive marriage — who loves her family so much, and despite her cluelessness wants to make something meaningful and better out of her life.
Understanding the powerful and who we are taught to aspire to become — these wealthy elites — is important in also understanding our nation’s frustrations. Moreover, this film gave space to recognize how difficult it was for everyone to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Perhaps, we have not fully honored the adversity and the resilience that followed how helpless everyone was to bankers, the economy, and stock markets, and that, perhaps, we all have more struggles in common than we think.