F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” The Queen of Versailles examines the proposition that the very rich “are different from you and me.” The film introduces us to David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire couple who began building what was to be the largest family residence in America‐a whopping 90,000 square foot home.
Most of the film centers on Jackie, a former model and Mrs. Florida. When asked why they would build such a huge house, she replies, “Because we can.” She says, “My husband deserves it. It is like a lifetime achievement award.” She shows us around the building in progress, showing where the kid’s skating rink will be, and the crates holding $5,000,000 in marble that will be part of the house. In spite of all this, she seems very down to earth. She wasn’t born with money, nor was David. In many ways, they really are just like the “you and me” of Fitzgerald’s quote. Is there anything wrong about building a huge house if they can afford it? Isn’t all this part of the American Dream?
The idea of the American Dream is very central to the film. We learn that the billions of dollars they have has come from David’s timeshare business. His company sells weeklong ownership in vacation properties. When we see the facility in Las Vegas and see the sales force and the presentation, it is very obvious that they sell the American Dream. They sell the idea that for just one week a year you deserve to be able to live like the rich. And they make a good deal of money selling that Dream.
But what happens when the American Dream turns into a nightmare, as it did in the housing bubble collapse? What happens when people who bought timeshares can no longer afford the mortgages that go with them? What happens to people like the Siegels when the economy has a downturn? What about the mortgage on their home being built when the cash stops coming in?
The film allows us to consider just how we differ from the Siegels, but more importantly how we are alike. The film has a fair amount of scenes that seem to be about the foibles of the rich (some of which seem a bit staged). We laugh as Jackie talks about having a $17,000 pair of Gucci boots or about the ten kitchens that the new house will have or about having so many children (they are raising eight, including one niece) because she discovered nannies. But when the financial troubles come, we recognize much of the same pain that many of us have gone through—just on a bigger scale.
Does materialism and the role it plays in the American Dream affect us just as it affects the Siegels? We may not be able to afford the lavish lifestyle they live (which is also what they sell), but we do yearn for things to be just a bit bigger and better in our lives. We always seem to want just a bit more—not as much as the Siegels have—but then again, maybe we would if we could afford it.
Reflecting on Fitzgerald’s quote in light of The Queen of Versailles I don’t think the rich are all that different from us. Or maybe it’s just that we aren’t all that different from them.