THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES – The Review
Review by Barbara Snitzer
“The Queen of Versailles” is one of those documentaries for which I’ve coined a genre: the “doc-omg”. This type of documentary cannot be planned; it is created when the circumstances of the documentary’s subject change in a dramatic, unanticipated fashion.
Although there is no explanation offered, one can safely assume director Lauren Greenfield set out to film the ostentatious residents and construction of what was to be the largest private residence ever constructed in the United States. It’s a great subject for a movie. A look at the lines to get into Graceland and the ratings for the metastasizing number of popular reality shows from New Jersey, is sufficient proof that it has become a national pastime to gawk at people who have money and taste in complete disproportion.
If you have had the good fortune to visit the awesome (true meaning intended) palace created by Louis VIX of France (and didn’t head straight to the gift shop), you know how magnificent it is. Did you think, “It’s so beautiful- I want my own!” Jackie Siegel did. Because she could.
Blessed with the ever increasing wealth of her second husband, David Siegel, Jackie set about realizing her dream. If you watched Candy Spelling’s TV special about downsizing from her 56,500 square foot mansion to a 16, 500 square foot two-floor penthouse, then you appreciate the very hard work it is to spend money just the right way: you need to hire the right designers so you can then micromanage the talent right of out of them.
There’s a very funny, very telling scene where Jackie explains that she couldn’t get the French design exactly right- until she looked out of her window at Paris Las Vegas. The French-inspired roof of the casino was preferable to the roof of the real Versailles.
At least her taste is consistent: her current Florida mansion is filled with objets d’art that look like they’re from the same store Michael Jackson shopped at in Las Vegas. And, like Michael Jackson, they have creepy painted portraits of themselves attired in royal ermine in ornate gilded frames. The tub in the children’s bathroom is flanked by Doric columns that don’t look at all hazardous.
You can see more of the grotesque décor, the tribe of children, the zoo of animals they have, their nineteen nannies, and the inappropriate self-entitled remarks by all in the movie-during roughly the first half.
And then their luck runs out. I’d like to think someone called the Karma Police.
David Siegel’s money spigot dries up. He built his fortune with time shares, an idea he learned from a man who regrettably revealed his intentions for a piece of land Siegel was selling. There was no sale. Paraphrasing Siegel’s description of his business acumen: why should he build condos he could sell once, when he could sell the SAME condo 365 times!
Since he was selling homes, he got caught up in the whole sub-prime lending greedy gravy train. Insightfully, he likens his money-making machine to a crack addiction, and suffers withdrawals when his dealer’s supply stops. This is understandable, what follows is not: he blames the government for lending money so freely and easily that it’s their fault he became addicted; the government enabled him. He really said that.
Were they going to construct “de” Nile next to their Versailles?
Fortunately, Greenfield’s access allowed her to film an actual time-share sales pitch, from beginning to end. It starts with the sales “training” led by Siegel’s son which is really a sales pitch for the sellers so they can ignore what their minds are telling them as they perform the pitch.
Once the salespeople are sufficiently pumped up, they approach the customers lured in with expensive gifts- gifts with the condition that they agree to endure the entire sales presentation. It seems a small price to pay for show tickets worth hundreds of dollars.
With the first deal “closed,” so to speak, middle-class travelers, the “real Americans,” who normally stay at motels get their first taste of the good life. First, they visit the penthouse suite to whet their appetite. They’re not being offered the penthouse for purchase. Famous names are dropped, and they now have golden lint on their clothes. Having effectively triggered the desired emotional response, they are pressured to sign on the dotted line, quickly, before those emotions evaporate and they can assess their financial realities.
Who could go back to a motel after being in the penthouse? It’s the epitome of a hard sell. Siegel the Younger has ordered his sales army, “don’t let them leave without a signature.” It’s uncomfortable to watch, as it should be. Hard sells are about emotional manipulation, not about providing a service.
Many of those financially ruined in the housing crisis were David Siegel’s customers. We see him upset. Upset that his entry to the most elite pissing club in the world is denied as his name disappears from a Las Vegas skyscraper.
Construction on Versailles is halted, and it is put up for sale. The listing agent pitches “Ver-Says” as “a very unique opportunity,” sans irony or correct pronunciation. The unfinished house sits and rots, and the Siegels continue to visit, stoking the embers of their dream, albeit separately. David Seigel is happy to imagine living without his wife in this palace. Whoa.
I believe the Siegels were so disoriented by the velocity of their fall they didn’t think to cease filming. We become very uncomfortable eyewitnesses to the disintegration of a family that had only been held together by the floss of their wealth. David Seigel isolates himself from his family, literally. He spends hours in a locked room, refusing his children entry, while he phones incessantly, begging for money to resurrect his company and to buy back the foreclosed Versailles. In between calls, he curses the government and everyone he has ever helped for making him a victim. He vows to complete Versailles and resurrect his company.
Versailles is still for sale. Asking price: $60 million.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater
Read more of Barbara Snitzer’s reviews at http://lemoviesnob.com/