Versailles in the Sky
In “The Queen of Versailles,” the new documentary about ‘Timeshare King’ David Siegel’s recessionary fall from grace, we have the biggest house in America, a concise, well-packaged confirmation of stereotypes about the venal nouveau riche, and an endlessly entertaining family on which the rarefied blessings of wealth hang … rather awkwardly.
It begins as a straightforward portrait of the Siegels in all their largesse on ‘Seagull Island,’ a 26,000 square-foot Florida home which they share with a chef, two nannies, four dogs and a full staff of housekeepers, pool cleaners and handypersons. Yet even with these comforts they’re still “bursting at the seams,” as Jackie Siegel, Miss Florida 1993, puts it, and they anxiously await the construction of their very own Versailles, the 90,000 square-foot palace-meets-McMansion that will bear — if it’s ever finished — the dubious distinction largest home in America.
But they never get to move in. As owner, founder, and CEO of Westgate Resorts, David Siegel’s business was hit hard in the financial crisis, having relied heavily on pre-crisis levels of cheap credit. Low-interest loans in hand, he pursued a highly leveraged strategy— including taking out a mortgage on the house which he rolled into the company — that might have been sustainable circa 2005, but not after the demise of Lehman Bros.
Throughout the rest of the movie, as hopes of ever living in their dream home fade, Jackie tours the massive husk of a house, pointing out the roller rink, the mezzanine where an orchestra might play (“for black-tie affairs”), and a massive quarter-million-dollar stained-glass dome window, the only splash of color amid the poured concrete and framing.
With her famous blend of critical clichés and bourgeois liberal dogma, the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday calls the movie “a portrait—appalling, absorbing and improbably affecting—of how, even within a system seemingly designed to ensure that the rich get richer, sometimes the rich get poorer.”
Roger Ebert finds “rich irony as he complains that greedy bankers tempted him with cheap money to take out loans he couldn’t repay—which is exactly what his sales force has been persuading time-share customers to do.” He also misquotes Siegel’s explanation, or lack thereof, of how he possibly dodged the law funding George W. Bush’s election, suggesting Siegel is admitting to illegal behavior. In the actual quote, he doesn’t admit to anything: “I’d rather not say it. It may not necessarily have been legal.” (He regrets the Iraq war, at least.)
That the movie flatters the liberal sensibilities of many critics is attested to by its 95 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes but a mere 5.5/10 from users at IMDB.
And yet I can’t help but think James Bowman is being a little uncharitable when he claims director Lauren
Greenwood’s Greenfield’s goal in making the film was “patronizing and making fun of this couple and their brood of spoiled children.”
Contra Bowman, despite the fact that David Siegel eventually sued the distributor and director, the family is portrayed in the most sympathetic light believable. The problems are deep, probably not fixable, but Greenfield doesn’t twist the knife.
Both David and Jackie are, in their own ways, self-made. David, who started the world’s largest timeshare company out of his garage, has the more traditional Horatio Alger story. But Jackie bucked the expectations of the small town in which she grew up, got a college degree and worked for IBM prior to her modeling career.
Admirable though their histories may be may be, it also means the couple lacks a certain highborn sense of taste. Sometime in the last third of the 20th century, conspicuous consumption replaced discrimination as the hallmark of style, and the latter was never expected of Jackie. It’s hard to imagine an heir to East Coast old money choosing between tawdry zebra- and leopard-print doormats, eating McDonald’s in a limousine, or filling up cart after cart with plastic toys from Wal-Mart. The showy, oddly-proportioned roof of ‘Versailles’ is inspired not by French architecture, but by the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.
With children she has the same disregard for costs and consequences as she does with handbags or shoes. She can hire nannies to take care of them, and since she loves kids so much, why not have seven? This is obviously a reprehensible approach to child-rearing. One of the kids insists on sleeping in bed with the nanny, and I can’t say for certain whether those things are connected. Jackie’s still a big-hearted lady, no doubt, but when the fiscal feces hits the fan, she hasn’t the faintest idea how to take care of a household without a staff.
It could be that Greenfield is spotlighting the worst moments, but it really does get bad. The dogs, which never needed housetraining thanks to the cleaning staff, make their presence known when layoffs hit the Siegel household, and all the non-canine animals simply die from neglect. Meanwhile Jackie cannibalizes the antiques meant for Versailles for her current house, and David sinks into depression as he tries to save his flagship Vegas property from default (“Nothing makes me happy these days”).
Jackie remains blissfully ignorant of the depth of their troubles. In what is supposed to be a revelatory final moment, she tells the camera that she had no idea they might lose Versailles, and “I guess I’ll have to watch the movie to find out about my own life … I should have been more involved … I’m in this fantasy world, you know? Until reality hits.”
As the credits roll, it’s revealed that Siegel sold a controlling stake in the Vegas hotel, and the family is probably doing better financially, though they’ll still have a tough time footing the $100 million to buy back Versailles. Which might be a good thing, Jackie says, because their little stint among the marginally rich humbled David a little bit and brought them together (for David’s part, he says being married to Jackie is like having another child, and remains dead-set on earning his fortune back).
Which is to say, the main subject of the film appears to have learned the lesson the movie sets out for the viewer; wealth corrupts. It’s a pedantic point, as if their extreme consumerism and Jackie’s trashy taste in clothes can be captured by a kind of moralistic statement. But you get the sense that Greenfield is more than a little bit sympathetic — the Siegels got on fine before they were billionaires — and you get the sense she’d qualify the aphorism by saying wealth corrupts the complacent. If the absence of it means Jackie has to re-learn such simple tasks as driving a car and feeding her children (to say nothing of her pets), it’s only because she has a deeper hole to dig out of than most.
Jordan Bloom is the Associate Editor of TAC. Follow him on Twitter.