Why did self-made billionaire David Siegel decide to build the largest single-family dwelling in the United States? "Because I could," he explains with serene self-assurance. The 90,000-square-foot mansion near Orlando boasts a grand ballroom for 500 guests, a 20-car garage, 10 kitchens (one exclusively for sushi) and a roller-skating rink.
Siegel's if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it comment, at the opening of Lauren Greenfield's superb documentary "The Queen of Versailles," sums up the buoyant, delusional exuberance of pre-crash America. The film follows Siegel and his wife, Jacqueline, a former beauty queen 31 years his junior, through the financial crisis as construction halts on their faux-French palace (dubbed Versailles but modeled on the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas). It's an astonishingly candid, surreal, unsparing yet sympathetic fly-on-the-wall view of life among the One Percent. It's "Real Housewives" meets "Citizen Kane."
Jackie, who confesses to a $1 million-a-year personal shopping habit, grew up middle class and doesn't put on airs. In gregarious interviews, Greenfield lays out Jackie's background as an ambitious student who landed an engineering job at IBM. The striking blonde soon realized she could rise quicker through her looks than her professional attainments. She became a swimsuit model and wife of a wealthy Floridian, split from him and climbed the next economic rung through her marriage to Siegel, whose Westgate resorts time-share empire made him one of the nation's wealthiest men. Atrocious oil portraits depicting the 70-something mogul and his busty, Botoxed wife as French royalty and Roman warrior and damsel redefine the term kitsch.
Westgate expanded into an empire in the era of easy credit, and the Siegel family grew to eight children including an adopted niece. With the kids whizzing on Segways around their 26,000-square-foot starter mansion, it was clearly time to upsize. The financial crisis of 2008 shattered the sky-high tower of debt sustaining the company. Jackie's insatiable spending downshifts from Versace to Wal-Mart. They lay off household staff, and Jackie does her ditzy, endearing best to manage her kids, innumerable pets and household details.
It's a daunting challenge for a woman accustomed to a life of unchecked privilege. Jackie frets that the kids might now have to go to college. She travels to her childhood home on a commercial flight where the children ask who are all those strangers on their plane, and dumbfounds the car rental agent by asking if a chauffeur is included.
The film draws a poignant portrait of the relationship between the Siegels and their dwindling, loyal staff of servants. The helpers have great affection for the couple and their kids, but their gratitude seems disproportionate to their compensation. Nanny Virginia Nebab movingly describes how hard it is to provide for her own family in the Philippines. Neither she nor her employer does well by their children, one because of too little money, the other because of excess.
"The Queen of Versailles" is beautifully constructed and frequently uproarious. It's not derisive laughter directed at the Siegels' comeuppance. David speaks emotionally about disappointing the thousands of employees he was forced to lay off. Jackie is as openhearted, down-to-earth and charitable as she is clueless. The film's humor comes from the absurd excess of their overreaching pre-crash lifestyle and the incongruity of a humbled mogul grousing at his children to turn the lights off when they leave a room.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
Three and a 1/2 out of four stars Rating: PG. Where: Edina.