Immaculate Fixtures

Queen of Versailles (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Documentarian Lauren Greenfield wastes no time. The opening scene: a gray-haired man and a decidedly younger woman sit inches apart as bulbs flash. He’s dressed plainly in a purple polo and she sparkles in a black-and-green sequin dress. His eyes fixate on her face as she peers deep into the camera, twitching the right corner of her mouth into a smile. In any context, one could still tell that these two are wealthy. They exude affluence. Maybe it’s the way he sits, practically unmoving, as his well-earned gut juts out gently into his shirt. Or how distinctly self-aware her movements are: sweeping her gaze from lens to lens, carefully positioning her hand on his shoulder. It’s certainly not the first time that she’s been photographed. Fortunately for the viewer, no such deduction is necessary. A wealth of context exists above their heads, under their hands, and just over their shoulders. I’m speaking, of course, of the decor. 

The couple sits in a large gold chair bearing winged angels, flower petals, and a fleur-de-lis. That chair rests on an antique rug bursting with its own set of white and blue florals. A massive oval mirror stands in the corner opposite a Fabergé egg and two classical female statuettes. It isn’t enough to just say that they’re wealthy. The room, no doubt chosen with the photographers in mind, imbues both people with a rigid austerity, the character of a collector or fine arts enthusiast. That, while also reflecting a desperate fixation on appearances. One captured still of this moment, which Greenfield lingers on just before the title card, tells the story its subjects most desire.

The figures in question here are David and Jacqueline Siegel, the primary subjects of Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles. David, 74 at the time, is the CEO of Westgate Resorts, the world’s largest timeshare company. Jackie is a former Miss Florida and David’s third wife, with whom he has seven children. The initial conceit of the film was to follow them as they constructed the largest residential home in America (their “Versailles,” hovering around 90,000 square feet). That angle shifted dramatically when the 2008 financial crisis hit, and the Siegels’ comfortable life began to deteriorate. Greenfield astutely focused on David and Jacqueline’s separate reactions to turmoil—most notably: what they chose to prioritize and hold dear. 

This dual narrative is set against a backdrop of explicit, transparent opulence, as evidenced by the opening scene. Almost all featured interiors are reminiscent of Donald Trump’s triplex apartment—gold-coated and populated by an expanse of overwrought antiques—while the exteriors are all mega-mansions or multi-million-dollar commercial buildings. 

The promise of this new Versailles comes in its ability to take these two zones (interior and exterior) and elevate them to their utmost extremes. Greenfield introduces and develops this idea over a seven-minute stretch early on in the film, when Jacqueline gives a tour of the incomplete Versailles property, showing off massive closets and future amenities (for now, just slats of wood). Greenfield cuts between this and an interview with David in which he reveals his priorities. He speaks briefly on Versailles specifics, lists off some information, schematics. The kids will have a space to do “whatever they do.” He becomes energized only when speaking on his own influence, his own legacy. “A lot of people are better off for knowing me,” he says. In his mind, he creates empires, marries beautiful women. The world marvels at him. Greenfield asks him about being a “kingmaker.” David smiles. He got George W. Bush elected in 2000, he says. Donald Trump thinks the Westgate sign on the Vegas strip is too bright, he says. His ambitions operate on a global scale as Jacqueline, cut to once more, plays around her fantasy house, imagining the possibilities. 

Oddly, these tendencies coalesce in Versailles. Every news story about the property’s development and eventual completion will feature two things: a shot of the house and a shot of David. Another world conquered. His legacy further secured. Jacqueline says that finishing it will be a “lifetime achievement” for him. For her, it’s an opportunity to create a home that reflects her love for her family: a meticulously-crafted space that leaves no one wanting.

The great tragedy, then, is that both David’s aspirations for Versailles—as a grand testament to his quality—and Jacqueline’s—as a perfect home that will, in its design and fixtures, secure a happy life for her family—come undone by forces beyond their control, revealing the ugliness hidden therein.

Following the opening scene in which David and Jacqueline pose together, Greenfield’s camera lurks around their current home. She shuffles down corridors, paying careful attention to what hangs on the walls. It’s all photographs: Jacqueline’s glamor shots from her modeling days, family photos in matching sweaters, newspaper clippings featuring David and his various accomplishments. The house looks like either a museum or a memorial. 

The furnishings are gorgeous. The bathrooms are all marble; some overlook the water. The kitchen boasts three refrigerators, fully stocked, and a central island large enough to sit 15 people comfortably. Despite Jacquline saying that they’re moving to Versailles because the current house is “bursting out at the seams,” Greenfield still finds sparse rooms adorned only with oil paintings. At the time of recording, the home confirmed everything one might assume about the Siegels. 

All the same, they’re moving onward and upward to the new Versailles. If the current home already reflects the needs and tendencies of the Siegel family, one wonders what Jacqueline hopes to accomplish in designing and assembling the interiors of this incoming giant. For all the rigid austerity present in some of Jacqueline’s current furnishings, the home does feel lived-in. Its cast of characters is well-occupied and taken care of. The children all have rooms that, when featured, reflect their individual personalities. There are well-stocked game rooms, full closets, and live-in spaces for the nannies. What new interior, no matter how grand, can build upon a suitable family home? 

As Jacqueline precariously climbs Versailles’ main staircase, she says, “This is the staircase that I would come up if I was going to visit the children.” That sentence is a rich text, no doubt, but, to me, the operative word is “visit.” In designing this house and inserting all of her wildest ideas (her own words), Jacqueline actively cultivates an unfeeling, inhuman environment. If executed, it would allow a family unit to operate at a total remove from one another, with each individual having their own kitchen, bathroom, and place to decompress. While Jacqueline presents the property as an ideal family compound, the imagined floor plan acts as an active threat proposing the opposite. 

Versailles gives off the feeling that no one has or ever will ever truly occupy it. Endless patches of open space, so far only populated by scant wooden beams, are assigned functions and labels. The roller rink is a flat of concrete. Every kitchen, identical and unmarked. The size, especially in relation to the actual Siegel family, suggests a desire for distance and segmentation.

All of Jacqueline’s future plans, her hopes for Versailles and her family’s comfort, combust when the recession hits. Greenfield cuts to found footage here: news clippings and stock tickers. Brian Williams and George W. Bush identify what the viewer, in hindsight, already knows: we’ve got a problem. 

Following the drop, the Siegels are unprepared, overwhelmed, unsupported, and in distress. Greenfield pivots, stripping Jacqueline and David of their surroundings and placing them in conversation with unglamorous locales and previously unacknowledged third parties. The recession momentarily expands their world. Soon after David’s business combusts, Jacqueline flies with her children (in coach, no less) to spend time with estranged family and friends in upstate New York. At the Elmira airport, she tells a Hertz employee that she’s on a budget now, laughing mirthlessly as she does. When she asks what their driver’s name is, the employee says nothing. Then she says nothing, looking down without expression. Upon her arrival in Binghamton, Jacqueline is seen processing these new surroundings: single-level houses, rambunctious children, clutter. She beckons her family to walk with her and see her childhood home. She repeats herself, practically begging now. Her voice cracks as she says, “Come on. I want to show you where I grew up.” The kids barely acknowledge her. Greenfield lingers on Jacqueline’s pained expression, watching as the bubble bursts. Jacqueline must relearn how to live, now at a remove from the cloud of opulence she first inhabited. 

Greenfield carries this intense revelation into her depiction of Jacqueline’s life as she returns home with her children. Changes that were at first obscured by travel and distance appear more permanent under her own roof. David has made cutbacks to operate in line with his new budget. He pulled the kids from private school and consolidated assets, requiring Jacqueline to lay off most of the house staff. A cohort of nannies, cleaning personnel, and cooks abruptly disappear, placing the weight of this eight-child family onto a skeleton crew, which now includes Jacqueline. 

Whereas Greenfield conducted Jacqueline’s earlier interviews in elegant, intimate spaces, they’re now done in open areas like the kitchen, where children roam in the background. Rather than cut between these interviews and glamorous portraits of Jacqueline’s life, as she does early on, Greenfield cuts instead to images of the house in disarray, made grotesque and chaotic by the lack of professional help. In moments of weakness, Jacqueline can be seen grimacing at her surroundings; the previously-immaculate flooring and countertops now act as symbols pockmarked with filth.

At first well-coordinated and clean (if a bit overstuffed), the house erupts the moment the Siegel family’s support system is laid off. Greenfield adjusts her angles, pointing the camera straight down to depict wood floors now wet with unknown substances and covered in food, torn paper towels, toys, dog feces, and trash bags. While we never really see Jacqueline interacting with her children in the pre-recession footage, she’s with them constantly now. 

Perhaps most affectingly, the family’s animals die. Jacqueline goes to feed the children’s pet lizard a piece of turkey meat only to find it unmoving, decaying, long dead. A moment later, Greenfield lingers on a fish tank loaded with fake Roman architecture. Think: the Parthenon underwater. Her camera rises up to find a large dead fish floating lengthwise, eye open. 

This is Jacqueline’s life now: swinging from room to room in response to errant shouts from children, trying to maintain the status quo via responsibilities she didn’t know existed, and mothering (truly mothering) in a way that she hadn’t had to before the fall. At one point, as she tries to help cook a family meal, she says explicitly, “I never would have had so many children if I couldn’t have a nanny…[Originally] I figured I’d probably have one kid, and then maybe two. But then when I found out I could have nannies, I just kept having the kids.”

These images and occurrences aren’t limited to one or two scenes. They are ongoing and relentless. Even as David retreats to his office and Jacqueline pretends to go on with her life—buying caviar and zebra prints that they clearly can’t afford—Greenfield returns to imagery of the house time and time again as a reflection of reality. It’s all too much. The window dressing can’t walk a dog. The Siegels’ initial, self-assigned mythos crumbles under the weight of their own inability.

Even as the circumstances in David’s house devolve into visible chaos, he hardly feigns concern for anything beyond his core assets. In the initial phase of the film—before the fall—he operates with a self-assured bravado synonymous with capitalist success. His lips perpetually curl as he speaks glowingly of his 28 resorts across 11 states. 

More so than anything, he takes pride in his property. When I say “his property,” I’m referring to two entities in particular: Versailles (still unfinished) and the newly-minted Westgate Tower in Las Vegas. David describes the latter as one of the “icon properties in Las Vegas.” To hear him describe the building is to hear a proud father list off his son’s academic and athletic accomplishments. Its dimensions, functionality, and public reputation pour out of his mouth like wine. It is transparently a part of him. 

He maintains the same relationship with Versailles, though to a lesser extent. When asked by Greenfield why he’s building the largest home in America, his response is simple: “Because I could.” Versailles and Las Vegas alike function as public assertions of dominance. They’re a means of expression through which David can present the only thing that matters: the unfathomable extent of his success. Beyond their base-level utility as assets, these properties become emblems—a public representation of David’s character.

David’s descriptions of his timeshare business add another wrinkle to this notion of property. His pitch and business model revolve around the idea that non-affluent individuals desperately want to live like the wealthy do. The wealthy live comfortably. The wealthy have property. If there’s one thing that David establishes throughout this film, it’s that he is wealthy, along with all of the intangibles that come with that label. All the have-nots fall short, navigating financial limitations and family squabbles, and end up settling for a facsimile. 

At one point, David says that there is no separation between his business and his personal identity. It’s his dominant mode of being and the zone that he most often occupies. His featured scenes, the scenes in which he is at the center of the frame for a prolonged period, are all attached to his business endeavors—more specifically, the properties. Greenfield weaves through the crowd at the Opening Day Gala for Westgate Tower, capturing shots of David posing with the Mayor of Las Vegas, kissing Jacqueline for the camera, celebrating his own significance. Whether it’s this, dryly congratulating himself on the ever-growing Versailles, or breaking down his multiform timeshares, David’s true passions are always exposed: his grand exteriors out on display. As his collapse intensifies, these mass obsessions become a fixed monument to his failure, driving him bitter and numb. 

Coincidentally, he almost disappears from the film. Greenfield attempts to capture him in those family group settings he’s obligated to attend. She sees him operating quietly to himself and chooses to include those moments that highlight his distance from, and disinterest in, anything but his personal matters. At a birthday celebration, David sits with an old-fashioned phone headset plugged in his ear. As Jacqueline and the kids eat cake, he takes a call and retreats. From that point on, the only space in the house he occupies is his study—a room of his own. 

Greenfield rarely enters the space, likely at David’s behest. She mainly shoots through the open doorway, capturing the back of his head as he sits alone in a Hawaiian shirt, watching basic cable. His room, like the rest of the house, is filthy, with plastic bottles on the floor and loose papers strewn about. On occasion, Greenfield follows Jacqueline as she ushers her children into the study, telling them to support their father. With the camera still stationed in the hallway, we see Jacqueline make an effort. All we hear of David is grumbled discontent, barely audible. He’s no longer wearing a microphone.

As his family life deteriorates, David remains unchanged, never budging on his biggest bargaining chips: Las Vegas (in default) and Versailles (forced onto the market by mortgage lenders). In a rare moment of honesty, Richard—David’s adult son from a previous marriage—reveals that, if David were to hand over the keys to Vegas, the banks would continue to finance his company and wipe away any financial worries for his family. He’d rather wither away, his hair whiter now than it was at the start. He fights tooth and nail to preserve Vegas and Versailles—two grandiose monuments to his own quality—from the confines of a dark, isolated room. 

Towards the end, Greenfield shoots in close quarters, staring down narrow hallways and into cluttered rooms. The house doesn’t look like luxury anymore. Neither do David and Jacqueline. David exists unto himself and lashes out at others when they intrude, so far removed from bragging about his political influence to Greenfield way back when. Jacqueline’s perennial pep has been dampened by constant reminders of her own shortcomings. She had hoped to build the ideal family home, but couldn’t even manage to sustain one.

The fixtures they affixed to every wall in every room slowly fail, no longer communicating what they once did. It’s almost amusing to see thousand-dollar appliances occupy a kitchen overrun with loose dog food and unwashed dishes—to see scenes of low-level marital agony play out among stained-glass and marble. It’s as though every antique in David and Jacqueline’s massive home suddenly shined a light on them, pointed, and said, The grift is up. You’ve been spotted. Greenfield’s early shots of the two of them looking regal (in a contemporary Florida way) seem more like a mirage with each passing scene. That initial view of them, well-dressed and posing in a room made of gold, rings hollow despite them continuing to occupy the same space.

At one point, when David is forced to put Versailles on the market, Jacqueline visits a nondescript building that Greenfield labels: “Siegel Storage Facility.” Inside, Jacqueline sifts through a warehouse of previously unseen antiques. She says that this—gesturing around her—is all 10 years in the making. A life’s worth of fixtures meant to surround and represent her and David. 

Jacqueline subtly acknowledges in her speech that the collection is fleeting and that they’ll likely auction it all off once Versailles sells. In the meantime, she scurries around, pointing objects out to the camera. She asks Greenfield, “What do you call it? The eggs from Russia?” Fabergé eggs, she’s told. “But look, I got the giant ones!” Jacqueline’s voice cracks. These were meant to adorn her dream home. People would see them and know that she lived well, whether she did or not.

On her way out of the warehouse, Jacqueline decides to take a few of the smaller antiques with her. She hopes to get some use out of them while she can.