Everybody wants to live the American dream. To raise above your status at birth and prove yourself to be a winner. In principle, this can be a positive, ambitious way to live, never thinking of the impossible and doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals. Under the surface however, the American dream encourages people to live past their means, to exceed their income, to 'speculate to accumulate'. This is all very well and good if the market is steady, but what happens when the stocks plummet, your investors back out and the bankers are after your blood?
This is when we meet the King and Queen of Versailles. David Siegel is the owner and CEO of the largest time-share corporation in the United States, with over 25 locations across the nation, thousands of employees under his wing, and billions of dollars in the bank. Jackie Siegel is his Queen. After achieving a computer sciences degree and a job with IBM, Jackie decided to reach for a more exciting life. Blessed with the looks and body of a model, she started building her portfolio and quickly became one of the most famous and high-flying pageant queens on the beauty circuit.
The two met later in life, after messy and painful previous marriages. Whilst David instantaneously found Jackie to be the most breathtaking woman he had ever met, she fully admits it took her longer to fall in love. On the surface you may see the age gap and the wealth and assume that there is no love lost between the two, but you couldn't be more wrong. With eight children and an adopted niece, the Segal family is one of humour, good-will and love.
The idea for the documentary was born when the couple visited Versailles in Paris, and became fixated on building a replica in their homeland, Orlando, Florida. Unintentionally, they began to work on what would be the largest private home in the entire world. With a ballroom, ten kitchens, a sushi bar, thirty bathrooms and a wardrobe bigger than your average apartment, the Orlando Versailles was on its way to becoming the most expensive, extravagant and slightly ridiculous house the human population has ever seen. What documentary maker Lauren Greenfield didn't expect was to end up following the lives of a family on the brink of disaster.
You may ask what effect this wealth has on a family. Whilst their children do have moments of spoilt brattishness (as well as a toy collection that could keep all the kids in America entertained), you can see the affection they feel for the mother who looks after them. And that's what hits home the most – Jackie Siegel, despite the money and privilege, actually looks after her own children. Of course, with a mansion to clean and eight little ones to keep track of, she has help in the form of a nanny that the children love and who lives in a miniature version of the house in the garden, but Jackie is there from dawn till dusk, to wake them up, feed them, bathe them, take them to school and pick them up again. She is, at heart, a mother.
For the first few minutes of the documentary, this is the picture we are painted. Then the news of the financial crisis comes crashing down around them like a tonne of bricks. Within a matter of months, David's team (including his own son) turn against him, contradicting his every decision as he tries to retain the company without liquidating assets and declaring bankruptcy. He becomes insular, unhappy and utterly engrossed in finding the money to keep his company afloat. A poignant moment is created in the middle of the film, when David admits one of his biggest worries - that he is not allowed to die until he has sorted this mess out for his family and employees. This honesty and blind determination is what makes him human, but may also be his undoing. He knows that if he allows the bank to take his largest asset, his Las Vegas property, then he will be fully solvent once again, but as David so eloquently puts it, “over my cold, dead body”.
As the cracks grow larger in David's bank account, so do those in his marriage. David becomes secretive and Jackie only learns the state of their financial doom through the interviewer's knowledge from a previous conversation with her husband. There is little trust and limited understanding between the couple nearing the end of the film and your heart reaches out for both parties. David is so riddled with guilt and worry about pulling his family and his redundant employees out of the ditch that he can't see anything past his bank statement, whilst Jackie is constantly in his peripheral vision, trying to love and support him but having no idea how to do so.
What this honest and engaging documentary makes clear to us is how easy it is to be in love and happy as long as nothing is rocking the boat. That appearances can be deceiving and that a marriage must be an equal and respectful partnership, so when the time comes for something to go awry (as so often it does) you can at least rely on the foundations of your family.
As the Palace of Versailles is put on the market, the elaborate decorations are sold at auction and even the family's jets and cars are available at a price, we leave the Siegel family. The children are beginning to act uncontrollably, the majority of the house staff are dismissed and we see a ridiculously opulent mansion left for the rats to enjoy. Jackie and David drift apart and leave us hoping beyond hope that they can keep it together and bring back the relationship they once had. The final message is not one of great comfort however, when David is asked if he gets strength from his marriage in times like these. He simply answers, “no”.
Queen of Versailles is out in cinemas across the UK now.