The 2008 banking crisis had one unlikely benefactor. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfeld was in the midst of making a documentary about a billionaire couple, Jacqueline and David Siegel, endeavoring to build the largest house in America in Orlando, FL. The monstrosity modeled after Versailles was to come complete with 26,000 square feet, 17 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, sushi bar, full-size baseball field and five million dollars worth of marble. That film probably would have had the limited appeal of a Bravo television reality series with audiences gasping at the subjects’ “let them eat cake” attitude. But when the real-estate bubble burst, Greenfeld kept the cameras rolling and the resulting film shows the time-share tycoon’s cheap money drying up, construction on the mansion grinding to a halt and the family unraveling. We are treated to a tale with equal parts Shakespeare and schadenfreude.
As is to be expected, the Seigel’s are walking cliches of the “greed is good” pursuit of the American Dream. Jackie is the 48-year-old bubbly, surgically-enhanced trophy wife who does everything to excess, including having eight children whose care is left to an army of nannies and staff, boasting to a million dollar a year clothing habit and picking up MacDonald’s in a limousine. She’s thirty years a junior to her husband, David, who takes credit for getting George W. Bush elected, hinting that his means might not exactly have been legal. He’s fond of giving money to the Miss America pageant and longs for the days when the reigning queen was the most famous woman in the world.
Once the crash hits, the film shows the couple trying to wrap their heads around being downgraded from billionaire to millionaire status. David works overtime to regain his heavily leveraged empire and Jacqueline tightens belts by resorting to Walmart for her requisite shopping sprees. It’s hard to feel sorry for the family who now have to surrender Versailles and make due with their 26,000 square foot house with 17 bathrooms, which Jacqueline says is “bursting at the seams.”
How the couple downsize their lifestyle is less interesting than how the financial setback impacts their relationship. The same characteristics that made them a sympatico super-rich couple become more exaggerated post crash and start to strain their interactions. Jacqueline seems to embrace more fully her head-in-the-sand, Marie Antoinette-like denial, which has the effect of turning the bravado of her kingmaker husband into controlling, irascible and grumpy sadism. In turn, she tries to appease him (without reining in her spending habits, really), and he sulks like a tyrant who hasn’t gotten his way.
At the end of the film, David vows to make a comeback. Jackie promises to stick by his side. The shell of Versailles sits abandoned. The thwarted construction project seems an apt metaphor for the couple, who don’t seem to have evolved, changed or taken even a wisp of self-inventory during the filming of The Queen of Versailles. Perhaps, that’s just too much to ask of the once golden couple, but they leave us feeling just as hollow as their unfinished house.