It is a truth universally acknowledged that in order to be in possession of a filthy amount of loot, one must first display an astonishing lack of taste. How else could one aspire to build one’s very own replica of Versailles – or Verseise, as I think you’ll find it’s pronounced – within sight of the Magic Kingdom fireworks in Florida?
This is the dream, told in documentary The Queen of Versailles, of 43-year-old former beauty queen Jackie, wife of David Siegel, the 74-year-old billionaire king of time share. While David sits and growls, sometimes on a throne but more often bare-chested in his cluttered, dirty den, Jackie has turned cheerfulness into a career. She manages to combine it with giving birth to eight children, adopting another, stroking dogs, having her assets pumped or bronzed and designing her palace. What she doesn’t spend her time doing is looking after the children or dogs, preferring to leave that to her fleet of nannies. Of course, we all know what happened to the original occupants of Versailles – or maybe Jackie doesn’t. When the time share bubble bursts, the unfinished property is put up for sale (not that anyone can afford to buy it) and huge numbers of Siegel’s employees are laid off.
But there’s something about the super rich. They can lose their businesses and fortunes but somehow they still act rich. It’s the people who work for them and lose their jobs who have the hard time of it.
The Queen of Versailles had quite an impact on me. Skilfully filmed by Lauren Greenfield, with no commentary or judgement made upon its subjects, the documentary makes it difficult for us to dislike Jackie, despite all her excesses. It is, however, very easy to dislike her grumpy old husband. But Jackie is all smiles and she appears to care genuinely for the people around her. Clearly once intelligent, she had set herself a goal and achieved it and when it starts to go wrong she continues to smile and you sense that she will survive.
But, for me, the lasting memories of the film weren’t the vacuous and funny bits of nonsense that came out of Jackie’s mouth and made me laugh. It was the faces and stories of the people controlled by the Sieglers, especially one of the nannies. This woman hadn’t seen her own children in years, not since they were small and not as adults. Instead she sent them her pay. She found a refuge from the huge, chaotic, messy, dog-dirted house in a small wendy house in the grounds, barely big enough to fit a single bed. Then there’s the chauffeur who’d given so many years to the family and at the end of the day had very little to show for it. Finally, all those time share employees, all out of work.
Jackie is a kind person within her own world and she had given money to help out an old school friend in trouble but it hadn’t saved her house. There’s a big difference between a woman in difficulties losing her home and Queen Jackie losing her Versailles.
While I thought The Queen of Versailles was an excellent documentary, the latest in a string of superb documentaries I’ve seen at the theatre over the last couple of years, it moved me to tears and rage. This is not a criticism of the film, it’s a testament to the quality of its making. It made me furious at the excesses of greedy society and at the human cost of this selfishness. A lack of taste has rarely seemed so ugly to me.
I walked out of the cinema with just one thought marching through my head: ‘Vive la revolution!’