The Queen of Versailles, now showing in theatres, is a documentary about the efforts of time-share mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie to move out of their cramped living quarters into something a bit bigger.  The family lives in a mansion that has 17 bathrooms and sprawls over 26,000 square feet, but, with seven children of their own, an adopted niece, numerous pets, and 19 servants, things are a bit tight.  They plan to build a 90,000 square-foot house with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a skating rink, a spa, a bowling alley, a gym, and a full-sized baseball field.  The new house is named Versailles; they planned it after a visit to Louis XIV’s palace and added more details after seeing the Paris Las Vegas hotel.  Director Lauren Greenfield started filming in 2007; footage from that year shows the couple reveling in their opulent lifestyle—having their portrait taken while they sit on an ornate throne, flying in a private jet, riding in a limousine, and hosting all 50 Miss America contestants. (Jackie herself was a beauty queen—Mrs. Florida of 1994.  Thirty years younger than her husband but now over 40, her artificially enlarged breasts and Botoxed face provide no more than a parody of beauty.)  The new house is planned to display even more wretched excess.  However, the 2008 recession slams David’s business, and most of the film details the Siegel’s fumbling attempts to live life within limits.

Jackie is the heart of the film.  She grew up in modest circumstances, got a degree in computer engineering, and once worked for a living.  However, she seems to have forgotten how the middle class live.  After flying commercial to visit family in Binghamton, New York, she asks the Hertz attendant “What’s the name of my driver?”  It takes her a minute to realize that Hertz doesn’t supply chauffeurs.  Back in Orlando, she goes to McDonalds to pick up a meal in a chauffeured stretch limo.  She buys Christmas presents for the kids at Wal-Mart, but spends way more than she needs to, then blows budgetary restraint by buying herself a huge tin of caviar—estimated value, $2,000.  “It’s my gift to myself,” she chirps.

Jackie’s inability to constrain her desires is matched by her husband’s inability to show warmth and kindness to his family.  As the financial crisis deepens, he holes up in his paper-strewn den, barking at his wife when she tries to cheer him up.  He seems to have little relationship with his children; an older son, who toils loyally for David when credit dries up and they are in danger of losing their property in Las Vegas, the centerpiece of their holdings, indicates that there is little warmth between them.  The relationship is “all business.”

Jackie displays a generosity of spirit lacking in her husband.  She takes in and raises her brother’s daughter along with her own children, holds a thrift sale to aid community members in need, and, though under severe financial strain, sends $5,000 to a childhood friend whose house is about to be foreclosed.  She is also charitable to her husband, excusing his sullenness as the result of hard work and stress.  He on the other hand describes her contemptuously as “like having another child.”  Despite her kindness, though, Jackie is trapped, just as her husband is, by her own faults.

When watching the movie, I was reminded of the eight deadly thoughts listed by fourth century monk Evagrius.  We tend to think of the rich as possessed by greed, but this doesn’t seem the primary deadly thought for either Jackie or David.  Jackie is much less interested in accumulating money than she is in indulging in life’s pleasures.  The “gift” of caviar is but one example—there’s also a warehouse full of antiques, a full spa planned for Versailles, the elaborate glasswork there, and the huge closet she plans to stuff with her clothes and shoes.  David ruefully remarks at one point that she’s never satisfied with just one of anything.

For his part, David is trying to make as much money as he can, but he hasn’t tried to hold onto it the way a greedy person would.  For him, money seems to mark his accomplishments.  His deadly thought is pride.  Early on, he brags to the camera that he got George W. Bush elected and, when asked why he’s building Versailles, smugly replies, “Because I can.”  He tells of all the people he’s helped, the emphasis being not on the people but on his virtue for helping them.  As the financial crisis starts to subside, David could solve his financial woes by turning his Las Vegas tower over to the bank and living on the huge amounts of wealth generated by his other properties.  He won’t do it; he says it’s because he has too much invested, but it seems much more likely that the building is the jewel of his empire and losing it would be a blow to his ego.  We tend to think of wealth as providing us with freedom, but for both Jackie and David wealth seems to just set the hook of their desires more deeply.

The movie starts out cataloguing the lifestyles of the wealthy, but ends up revealing the flaws of two ordinary human beings.  The Siegels, trapped as they are in deadly thoughts, are beset by the same weaknesses that trouble us all.  I particularly like what A.O. Scott said about the movie in his review for the New York Times: “Schadenfreude and disgust may be unavoidable, but to withhold all sympathy from the Siegels is to deny their humanity and shortchange your own. Marvel at the ornate frame, mock the vulgarity of the images if you want, but let’s not kid ourselves. If this film is a portrait, it is also a mirror.”  The movie demonstrates powerfully that wealth doesn’t exempt anyone from the human condition.