Retrospective: Queen of Versailles (2012)

With the fashion for financial dramas at the moment, there comes one of the most interesting documentaries about the 2008 crash from the perspective of the near bankrupt timeshare king, David Siegel, along with his wife, their family and various staff as they attempt to navigate the crisis while also attempting to build a full size replica of the Palace of Versailles in the middle of Florida. This is a compelling movie for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows both the great excess of the the time before the boom and shows in exact detail the problems which caused the crisis, namely the heavy over-mortgaging of business. At one point he says he can’t see the point of any property unless it is mortgaged to the hilt. From a first hand perspective it shows how deals were offered to people who would never be able to pay it back: ‘we would sign anyone with a pulse’, reflecting the subprime crisis in a sentence.

The documentary is very hands off, letting all its subjects speak for themselves. Jackie Siegel is particularly interesting as she encapsulates an American life with huge ups and downs, from an abusive first marriage to living the life of luxury with a millionaire twenty years her senior. She goes through an arc of rediscovering reality intruding into their dream life. What’s so fascinating about this documentary is you can see almost exactly when the crew decide to continue with the documentary when their dream goes belly up. You can see the moment that the crew suddenly feel like they are intruding on the private grief of a family but still carry on seeing everything get frayed by the stress of the failing business.

The couple have an astonishing amount of stuff, constantly accumulating despite being what they consider hard up. One of the most touching parts of the film are the interviews with the Filipino nannies and hearing their dreams of finishing work in America and building their dream house for their own families who they have left behind, showing just how similar the dreams of the staff are to those of the bosses.

Their enormous house is only part of the reasons why they are in such problems. The major problem that ends up dominating David Siegel’s mind is a huge skyscraper in Las Vegas which is the centre piece in his property empire and is a huge money pit for the company. His huge property projects are the cause of the huge crunch suffered by this millionaire’s family and the realisation that they will have to earn their money rather than just spend it.

One person who recommended this movie to me said that the way their fall is shown made him want to actually send them money! I wouldn’t go that far but it’s remarkable how they are humanised by seeing their massive hubris of the mansion falling apart before their eyes with the possibility of taking everything else with it. It also shows how the crash has affected other families and the general difficulty to make ends meet. Two very good examples of this are Jackie’s oldest friend who is being foreclosed for very poor reasons and is being pumped for money and their driver who lost a good job and had his house foreclosed and is now renting and turns into a rather morbid tour guild in his Rolls Royce. It displays all these massive houses which have been foreclosed, showing that the ’07 crisis did really affect everyone, even tragedy for the rich folk.

By the end of what is a rather short documentary you finally see a bit of hope in these people after their fairly horrible years. These are the losers of what are now known as the top 1%, so their problems could either be Schadenfruede from the perspective of the viewer or a shared story of suffering in a horrible economy, which I think the film achieves. I would probably have preferred there to be some narration just because I personally prefer such a style but other than that it is a very interesting movie about the world’s financial crisis from a family perspective. It’s a documentary about an extremely well off family which remarkably avoids the ‘poor little rich people problem’ these documentaries can suffer from and keeps them very much as real people.

Review by Harry Riedl


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