The Queen of Versailles

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I first heard about The Queen of Versailles on Slate‘s Culture Gabfest this past week when the show’s film critic, Dana Stevens, referred to it as the best documentary of the year. So, obviously I called my mom to ask her what she changed the Netflix password to this week, and then headed to my cave to see it for myself.

The film chronicles Jackie and David Siegel, owners of Westgate Resorts, as they set out to build the largest and most costly house in America, and the subsequent crisis that ensues as the US economy collapses.

We first meet Jackie and David while they are on top of the world. They’re all smiles and braggadocious about their overflowing wealth. Jackie is a 43-year-old, former model (calendar or beer maybe?) who loves her husband, eight children, 693 pets, and $17,000 crocodile shoes. Her very exposed bolt-ons are shocking and distracting as we try to get to know her – we’re talking Heidi Montag jumblies post plastic surgery meltdown, big boulders that look painful and hard like skin forcibly stretched over ceramic bowls. Despite this, Jackie actually seems very sweet, if not just living in another universe, i.e.: bragging about her $1 million dollar a year shopping stipend. Even after they start to lose everything, she is remarkably calm and dazed and happy-go-lucky, like in that pain-killers type of way. Still, she insists that she loves her family and will be fine, rich or poor. By the end, I kind of thought she was a brave and tragic character (I’m sorry, but it’s confusing! You want to hate her for being such a dum dum with her money and hubris, but then you see that she is really just this sweet little naiveté!).

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Her husband, David, is another story. He boasts that he’s on his third wife and that he “loves beautiful women and the Miss America Pageant”. Ew, he’s like 75. Asked why he is building a 90,000 square foot replica of Versailles in Florida, he simply responds with “because I can.” All cocky and shit. When he starts to lose everything, and the interviewer asks him, “Do you find comfort in your marriage?”, he looks the camera in the eye and says, “No, it’s like having a 9th child.” Dude is hard to like.

Some of the quirks of the Siegel family are quite shocking. THEY STUFF THEIR DEAD DOGS AND PUT THEM ON DISPLAY IN THE HOUSE. Also, Jackie would buy 8 sets of one board game for her kids. Like she bought a Yahtzee and Monopoly set for each kid at Christmas, does she know that you can’t play those games by yourself? Not to mention the creepy baroque, French decor everywhere, totes made me claustrophobic through my laptop screen. You know some weird shit goes down in the Siegel house.

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On the whole, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is quite good. The Economist described the film’s greatest achievement as its ability to inspire both compassion and Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) in its viewers. It is also described as one of the most powerful film depictions of the Great Recession, blah blah blah. Anyways, there’s a lot going on in this film and I think you’ll like it.

Hit or Quit it Verdict: Hit it.