Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)
Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.
The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?
One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.
As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).
At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.
Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.
Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.