People’s relationships with money fascinate me. Some people resent those with a lot of money, or those who exhibit displays of wealth. Somehow it’s become okay to hate those who are (supposedly) better off than you. I don’t think it’s healthy to be cynical towards others with no context about their lifestyle. Hating on others for their fortune is just as callous and shallow as any episode of Sweet Sixteen.
That’s why I really enjoyed The Queen of Versailles, a documentary covering the rise and fall of billionaire American couple David and Jackie Siegel. Director Lauren Greenfield could have easily played up the heinous spending of the Siegels and called it a day. Instead, she explored a complex side of the American Dream as it follows the family’s downfall after the economic crash.
Both David and Jackie come from humble beginnings with grand dreams. Their success brought them to a point of such excessive wealth that they decided to replicate Versailles in Orlando. Halfway through the building of America’s largest single-family home, the economy went bust and the husband and wife found themselves scrambling to liquidate their assets in order to pay back the 40 million debt they owed to banks.
What’s fascinating is that the documentary didn’t start with the intention of covering the family’s downfall – it happened as they were filming. You see the Siegels in their prime in the beginning of the film, before things go awry. David Siegel, who started the film off rich and proud, becomes a huge ball of stress towards the end, answering questions with uncomfortably dry – yet honest – responses. (“Do you get strength from your wife?” “….No. It’s like having another child.”) Jackie seems pretty unaware of the problems that her family is facing and continues to spend in ignorance, although she is humanized by her candidness about her abusive first marriage and desire to become an engineer in a time where women would do No Such Thing.
It’s easy to point fingers and engage in a little schadenfreude, but the film does a good job holding a mirror to the spending habits of typical Americans as well: in the quest for wealth, David made a fortune selling time shares to those who couldn’t afford it. It might seem ridiculous in retrospect, but in an age where anyone can get a credit card (Roy still gets statements for a card where he’s known as a Baron), people are constantly spending more than they have. Perhaps in pursuit of their own Versailles?
You can watch The Queen of Versailles on Netflix. I highly recommend it.