Riches-to-rags story in "Queen of Versailles"

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2012 - 4:19 PM

Rich meets kitsch in a documentary about David and Jackie Siegel's ill-fated plans for a 90,000-square-foot home.

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David and Jackie Siegel, subjects of "The Queen of Versailles."

Photo: Lauren Greenfield, Magnolia Pictures

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David and Jackie Siegel were not America's richest family. That distinction goes to Sam Walton's clan, whose combined worth is around $93 billion. Still, by one measure, the Orlando couple were America's most opulent. The time-share-resort mogul and his wife, a former beauty queen, set out to build the nation's largest single-family dwelling, a 90,000-square-foot faux-French mega-mansion. Then the economic crisis struck, upending their plans. With banks threatening to foreclose on their half-finished dream house, the Siegels came back down to Earth, living out a riches-to-rags story.

In "The Queen of Versailles," opening Friday at the Edina, documentarian Lauren Greenfield captures their downsizing dilemma in all its resonant, satirical, stranger-than-fiction folly. Name another movie that shows a real-life billionaire's trophy wife economizing by taking her superstretch limo to McDonald's.

Greenfield, a renowned photographer working on a book about consumerism, met Jackie Siegel in Beverly Hills. Greenfield's still-life photo of Jackie's gaudy real-gold purse was much-reproduced.

They hit it off and kept in touch, Greenfield said in a phone interview. Jackie, a onetime print model who thrives on attention, invited Greenfield to make a film of their home's construction. Greenfield captures their squabbles and makeups, their mollycoddled brood of eight children and their overworked, undercompensated household staff. Filming for three years, she gained remarkable access to the couple, who are utterly unguarded on camera.

"David was so open. He proudly said that he was responsible for delivering the presidential election in Florida for George W. Bush, adding that it may not have been legal. The fact that he said that in a set-up interview with two cameras was amazing," she said. "Jackie likes the trappings of wealth. She tells the story about how when she grew up there was one bathroom. Not even knowing how many bathrooms she would have is a status symbol. She would often joke, 'I need to text my family within the house.'"

The details of running the home, however, escape her. None of her myriad dogs is house-trained, and Greenfield's camera records piles of feces on the thick rugs. Numerous pets die because the kids lose track of them and forget to feed them.

"She does have a great spirit that is kind of childlike in some ways. You can see how mellow she is about dog poop. They're not precious in the way they use the house," Greenfield said. "The kids skate through it, bike through it, Segway through it. She really does try to make a fun life for the kids, almost like a theme park. She's living the American dream, just on a different level."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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