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“The Queen of Versailles” by Amy

This post originally appeared on my blog

I was really looking forward to seeing The Queen of Versailles. I am a big fan of Lauren Greenfield, who won the Best Director award at Sundance. Each of her previous documentaries, Thin and Kids + Money, had a profound effect on me. When Kids + Money came out, I loaded my girls into the car after school one day and drove to Hollywood to see an advance screening. That was 2008, when Sophie was 13 and Dana was 10. I felt they were too young to see Thin, which dealt with anorexia and bulimia, but they were at a perfect age to see a film about teenagers and their relationship with money.

Greenfield revisits the theme of money and materialism in The Queen of Versailles, only this time the mood and tone is darker, more sinister. Or maybe it is the audience’s mood that has changed. Or maybe I am more sinister. Kids + Money is a cautionary tale about the growing trend of spoiled, self-indulgent kids. It reveals the price — literally and figuratively — of the pursuit of status symbols and the increasing pressure on both kids and adults to keep up with the consumption and consumerism that seemed to be overtaking America.

Continuing that theme, The Queen of Versailles is the story of Jacqueline and David Siegal, two overgrown teenagers at ages 43 and 73, and their “riches to rags” story. The Siegals are those kids with money, gone unchecked, spending and spinning out of control. They remain unaware that their materialistic lifestyle is unsustainable even after the bubble bursts.

Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield

I am not sure if it is Greenfield’s touch as a director, or the Siegals themselves, that affected me so deeply. I am leaning toward Greenfield, as in my opinion, there is nothing deep about the Siegals, other than their dysfunction. The beginning of the film, during the good times of prosperity, is easier to watch, especially if you are a fan of reality TV. As the film goes on and times get tough, so does the viewing, at least for me. Not because these people lost their fortune. I didn’t feel sorry for them. In fact, I found most of the people in the film completely unsympathetic, except for the members of the household staff who are highlighted. I had the most sympathy and empathy for them, and for me, they were the heart of the film. They are the unsuspecting, innocent victims of the financial crisis and, to me, this family epitomizes and personifies part of what caused the near collapse of our economy — unconscious reckless spending and leveraging with no regard or respect for the consequences. And that is just the spending side of the equation. David Siegal’s business model — he was the head of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-held timeshare company in the world — preyed on people’s greed and emotions with hard selling, hard closing pressure tactics, making it hard to feel sorry for the CEO at the top or the minions profiting and then losing their jobs once they had worked over the consumers and the system to the breaking point.

And maybe that is where my discomfort and emotional reaction to the film lies. Greenfield points her camera at the Siegals, but it is a mirror for the rest of us. Some see and understand. They are either victims of or now remorseful participants in the cause of the problem, but they are truly heartbroken and working hard, doing the best they can for their families. And some, like the Siegals, not only show no signs of remorse, but no acknowledgment or awareness of being complicit. They perpetuate the problem long after the warning signals have gone off, living in filth, chaos and excess, among relics of a grander time. It is easy to turn our heads and look away from the Seigals, and shrug them off as excessive and extreme. But it is not so easy to turn our heads and look away from the empty buildings and neighborhoods littering the landscape. Not so easy to look away from empty offices and full unemployment lines. Not so easy to look into the mirror that Lauren Greenfield so poetically holds up and to really see all that she is showing us.


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