“What’s My Driver’s Name?”

The title for this post is one of the most hilarious things stated by Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that reveals the oh-so-very privileged life and somewhat downfall of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his family. The first part of the documentary reveals their immense wealth in all its conspicuous consumption and opulence, including the massive building project  based on the Versailles castle which was supposed to become the largest, most expensive single-family home in the US, with something like 30 bathrooms so no one has to stand in line.

In that first part, there is everything barf-bag-worthy: the arrogance of power (David Siegel claims to have gotten George W. Bush single-handedly elected through illegal means, but he won’t tell which ones); the large brood spread over three wives including seven from the last one (each treated by their father as future employees rather than children, and as cute things to be dumped on nannies at the first sign of inconvenience by their mother… so no expectation of college apparently); the nannies and maids from the Philippines; the multiple dogs pooping all over and other exotic pets that the kids abandon to die cuz feeding them is, like, boring; and the piles and piles of stuff. The art accumulation, the couple and family portraits, though, are awful.

But, of course, Siegel owes his success all to himself.

But then, this all turned out to be a house of cards as Siegel’s empire relied on cheap money and the multiple mortgages packaged and sold into derivatives. So, when !@#$ hit the fan in 2008, they got hit pretty badly as well. The second part of the film shows the consequences of their downfall, such as taking the kids out of private school and putting them in *gasp* public school! This also involves having to fly commercial once the private jet and yacht have been auctioned off, or for Jackie to find herself learning at the Hertz counter that her rental has no driver. There is also the massive layoffs and David Siegel’s increasing moodiness and his taking his financial frustration out on his family. This downfall is perfectly symbolized by the decaying, incomplete, Versailles that ends up pushed on the market.

I expected these people were going to make me want to throw up but I ended up being surprised by how relatively grounded and down-to-earth Jackie turned out to be as her husband cranks up the complaining about the banks that won’t lend him cheap money anymore, and the lenders clamoring at his door for all the reimbursements on all the mortgages his company has taken out to finance the acquisition of all these resorts out of which he sell timeshares.

But one should not be fooled into thinking that there is a radical loss of privileges here. The Siegels certainly have lost a lot but they can still afford an opulent lifestyle, the nannies, the massive home. What they lost is the ability to have a lot of stuff done by other people, like party managers or having fewer maids and nannies, and no more private jet. This is still luxury by any definition.

It is also refreshing to hear Siegel acknowledging that his own addiction to easy money as allowed by the financial system combined to create the crisis and that he is not blameless in this. But unlike a lot of people, he still gets to raise a few millions here and there and he still has his business, even if it has to be shrunk to size. Mostly, he is pissed off at the crumbling of his pedestal, and probably the loss of power going with it.

If you teach sociology, this is a good and nuanced depiction of the extent of privilege and how it cushions failure while less privileged people get to enjoy the whole free fall. The film is rich in details so that one can probably spend quite a bit of time dissecting all the different cultural and social aspects of privilege beyond the massive amounts of money, especially how it makes one clueless at life.

4 thoughts on ““What’s My Driver’s Name?”

  1. I don’t understand how you can base a lecture on a fiction movie. Doesn’t it portray what the author(s) wanted it to show? How can you use that as evidence for studying real life? Even a documentary still suffers from bias. You’re studying that the author(s) think about society, not society itself.

  2. BTW, for that scene at the Hertz counter, I think Jackie was just saying that for effect, perhaps to give the impression that the Siegels are of “old money.” Would a woman who grew up in working class Binghamton really not know that you drive your own rental car?

    I fully agree with the sociological relevance of The Queen of Versailles for teaching. If I taught anything about cultural capital and/or habitus, this documentary would be ideal to show in class.

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