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Reel Women: ‘The Queen of Versailles’

Queen of Versailles
Magnolia Pictures

Jackie and David Siegel were worth $400 million before the stock market dropped in 2008. David had built the world’s largest time share empire, which he was using with his wife Jackie to build the largest house in America, modeled after the palace of Versailles in France — a project which the couple must now face abandoning in the wake of their mounting financial crisis. Deep in debt and with several of his properties in foreclosure, David struggles to find the money to maintain the luxurious lifestyle to which his wife and eight children have become accustomed.

Director Lauren Greenfield follows up her last documentary, ‘Thin,’ with an examination of materialism and the near-addictive qualities that a life of wealth inspires. Where ‘Thin’ was an exploration of eating disorders that inspired contemplation over a disease that reeks of American privilege, ‘The Queen of Versailles’ explores another very American trait: materialism.

From the outset the film appears to be an extension of ‘The Real Housewives’ programming on Bravo. At first glance, Jackie fits the mold: plastic surgery, former pageant winner, and married to a wealthy older man who is thirty years her senior. It’s an effective hook that panders to our more primal entertainment instincts, but there’s much more to Jackie than her appearance and her love of objects. She grew up in a lower class home in Binghamton, New York, where the primary source of employment was IBM. She could either be a secretary for an engineer, or get an engineering degree and establish herself more respectfully. This isn’t what the audience expects when she begins to tell this story; it’s easier to believe she’d contemplate a choice between being a secretary or a stripper, but that’s not the case here.

Jackie also continues to maintain a friendship with her best friend from high school, who still lives in the town where they grew up and is struggling with her own financial problems. Jackie loves dogs, and has had her two beloved, deceased companions eerily preserved in her home — one is stuffed and kept on a doggy bed in a glass case (hilariously, one of her living dogs barks at it), another was skinned, the pelt residing atop a piano. She has seven children of her own, and one niece who escaped a harsh life after being orphaned by her parents. Jonquil, 17, speaks with a postured teenage dialect that belies a sense that she feels more adult than she is, and talks about how being rich is great but there comes a point when it becomes “normal,” and you’re always wanting more of what you already have — no object you acquire will keep you content when you could get more. And with that, Jonquil lays out Jackie’s entire life in one casual interview.

There’s a sense of complexity to Jackie’s character — when her husband has to lay off thousands of employees, she collects items they no longer need from their home and purchases old appliances from residential properties to donate to the families. But she’s not really donating; she’s re-selling in hopes to modestly reclaim some of her family’s lost fortune while also doing something kind. These people can’t afford toys and furniture and linens, but she can sell them for cheap.

She seems keenly aware of the genesis of her materialism. Living in a three bedroom, one bathroom house growing up, Jackie never had much to call her own. Her first husband was, by her account, emotionally and physically neglectful. She’s grateful for her husband David and all the children they’ve had. In a self-deprecating moment, she says that her children are proof that someone wanted to have sex with her frequently.

It’s easy to presume that the problems Jackie faces are born of familiar greed and indicate an obliviousness inherent in the upper class. What’s difficult is to accept that she is human, and that her need for material things is a hoarding instinct that she acquired from lack of fulfillment, both tangible and intangible, throughout her life. She has so many dogs that at times it seems new ones spontaneously apparate out of thin air. We join Jackie and her kids on a trip to Wal-Mart where she can’t just purchase one item, she has to purchase several of the same item — a few of the same jacket or scooter because why buy one when you could have many? She purchases a bike for her son and one of the maids takes it to the garage, where, in a shocking moment, we discover there are dozens of bicycles gathering dust.

Greenfield does difficult but competent work humanizing a woman we’d love to despise. It’s almost too easy to look upon Jackie with disdain and loathe her for spending so much money when her family is losing everything. The children now attend public school and face the very real possibility of having to apply for college and get jobs, their inheritance almost assuredly gone by now.

But something strange happens over the course of ‘The Queen of Versailles’ — Jackie and David are almost instantly empathetic and their relationship feels genuine and identifiable, but as the film progresses, we begin to understand that it isn’t Jackie — the female — who is necessarily superficial (you can be both superficial and a good human being), but David, who spends all of his time holed up in a study, surrounded by stacks of paperwork (presumably financial documents), grumbling about electric bills and refusing to eat dinner with his family. When one of his sons, encouraged by Jackie, goes to tell his dad he loves him to cheer him up, David says “Thank you,” and berates him for not paying attention to how much electricity is being used in the house.

Perhaps most unsettling is when Lauren Greenfield herself asks David if he gets strength from his marriage, to which he responds, “No, I don’t.”

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