The Queen before her unfinished palace
Anyone who thinks this will be about the famous palace of "Le Roi Soleil" Louis XIV on the outskirts of Paris is in for a big surprise.
The Versailles of this incredible true story will be the largest private family residence in the word when it is finished and the queen who will rule the roost is Jacquie Siegel, busty 43 year old trophy wife of 74 year old Real Estate tycoon David Siegel, who is building this monstrosity of a dwelling -- only because he can -- which is to say has the money to blow on an insanely extravagant project. The house is modeled, making allowances for outrageous bad taste, on the original palace of Versailles and will be filled with Louis period furniture, but that is where the similarity ends. Los Angeles based Photographer Lauren Greenfield struck up a friendship with Jacquie, the oddly down-to-earth would be queen of Versailles, and started following her around with a movie camera to see what an ambitious lady from a small town does with enormous wealth when she marries a much older man of fabulous means and can have literally anything she wants, including eight kids and multiple dogs!
What ensues is an amazing study of blatant unabashed conspicuous consumption and a glimpse into the mind of a self made multi-millionaire who has no taste except a highly developed taste for the making of money. The center of the study is clearly he wife but Mr. Siegel also comes in for some closeup dissection, mainly because of his total frankness and matter-of-fact candor whenever he is on camera. No pretensions this guy --all business.
The fabulous mansion is being built on an island property in Florida but the centerpiece of his business empire, the largest and most profitable Time-Share company in the world --(nothing Siegel has is small) -- is the tallest sky scraper in Las Vegas - even dwarfing some of Donald Trump's properties.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the loving couple and Jacquie announces that she now has eight children at age 43, and that her far older husband has no need of viagra to perform his population increasing functions. David jokes that when he married her he said that when she reaches forty he'll trade her in for two twenty year old wives. She also tells us that before she met Siegel she expected to have one or maybe two children, but when limitless possibilities opened up for her she "became addicted to having babies"! Considering her output in this domain, a statuesque blond with luscious lips, she has a remarkably athletic figure and loves to show off her bosom and long well turned legs. She did some modeling earlier and still looks the part -- almost. There is however a slight lower abdominal bulge indicating where her brood has come from. All in all Jackie Siegel is a happy woman and happy with her older husband, as he is happy to have her produce babies and look good at functions while he devotes almost all of his attention to business.
There is a slightly Citizen Kane aspect to all this. Aside from the palatial home Siegel is building, which reminds one of Kane's Xanadu, like Kane who was political eminence grise behind the Spanish American war, Siegel boasts that his financial support got George Bush into office. We are shown some footage of them together and Siegel says with a shrug -- "Well maybe that wasn't such a good idea or we might not be this war in Iraq we're into ..."
As the story progresses it begins to feel so unreal that I found myself wondering if this wasn't actually a pseudo-documentary (like Kane) acted out by incredible realistic and gifted performers (like Kane). However nobody could give a performance like these real people up there on the screen, and could such real life sets be reproduced --on a less than ultra-lavish studio budget?.
About halfway through --we are now in the year 2008 -- comes the big economic crash of that year, and with it the fortunes of Citizen Siegel's empire suddenly go into rapid decline. He is forced to put the unfinished manse in Florida on the market, but who is going to buy a home with 44 bedrooms and seventeen kitchens for $75 million dollars? Worse, as far as he is concerned --the bank wants to foreclose on the Las Vegas skyscraper. All the workers have been laid off -- Siegel feels very sorry for them -- but this is truly his most treasured possession, his very alter ego, and he fights to keep it using every trick in the corporate book. His son who does not feel at all close to him backs him out of filial solidarity, but when he asks pop for a loan to support his own endangered family Siegel says he has no more liquid assets -- sorry kid, no cash, no soap!
Now austerity sets in for Mrs. Siegel as well. For the first time she and her kids have to board a commercial flight (instead of a private jet) and the kids ask her "What are all these strange people doing on our plane?" When she goes to the rent-a car she asks where her driver is and is told, "Sorry Ma'm, we don't supply drivers". As stark reality begins to set in step by step one begins to wonder where this incredible tale can possibly end. At one point Siegel wryly tells the camera that his life was once a rags to riches story, but now it's beginning to look like riches tor rags! But is it really possible for people this wealthy to lose everything???
I must admit that toward the end I had become so disgusted with the unfettered greed of the Queen of Versailles and her privileged offspring, and the ceremonial burials of her pet dogs, not to mention the callousness of her husband, that I was on the verge of walking out. However, the suspense was now so thick that I simply had to wait it out -- just to see how it was going to end --like a film-noir thriller.
Was somebody going to get killed or would there be a mass suicide -- or what?
Okay. In the end Siegel has become practically a recluse in his study and is demanding that the family shut off the lights to save electricity -- finally we are told that all the other properties went under, but the family house with the kids and remaining dogs was saved and is still inhabited by the Siegel clan but in a much more subdued lifestyle. So, Jackie never did become the Queen of her private Versailles but she did become the heroine of an incredible, almost absurd, study of fabulous wealth and what happens when the s--t hits the fan and the wealth drains way.
Director Lauren Greenfield must be given credit for sensing that there was more to this straightforward documentary portrait of a trophy wife than seemed to meet the eye, and for having come up with a documentary film whose undercurrents make it feel like an epic fictional suspense thriller.
Director Lauren Greenfield and her Versailles Queen
Another fascinating documentary is on tap by another Greenfield -- Timothy Greenfield-Sanders of New York, also a portrait photographer by trade (and of note) and no relation to Lauren. "About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now" is his study of some of the outstanding fashion models and fashion mag cover queens of the past four decades, in their heyday and now, looking back from the perspective of advancing years. Among them Isabella Rosselini, Marisa Berenson and fifteen others. Most unusual.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders‘ latest documentary film, About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now—which made its worldwide debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—will make its broadcast debut on HBO at 9 p.m. Monday, July 30.
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, directed by portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (HBO’s The Black List and The Latino List), explores the lives of some of the fashion world’s most legendary models, highlighting the complex relationship between physical appearance and the business of beauty. The film features conversations with such celebrated supermodels as Carol Alt, Marisa Berenson, Karen Bjornson, Christie Brinkley, Pat Cleveland, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Jerry Hall, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, China Machado, Paulina Porizkova, Isabella Rossellini, Lisa Taylor and Cheryl Tiegs, revealing their role in defining—and redefining—beauty over time.