Not a Pretty Picture
‘The Queen of Versailles’ gives you a closeup of David and Jackie Siegel’s lives as metaphors for wretched excess.
Watching successful people fall and kicking them while they’re down is as American as apple pie and overeating. The distance of the fall is proportional to wealth and status. You know, the bigger they are, the harder they fall? And few are bigger than David Siegel, the biggest private timeshare resort owner in the world.
A few years ago, Siegel fell off the top of his world, with an unfinished 90,000-square-foot Windermere home made of borrowed money and bad taste landing on top of him. Many of us know this story, having watched Siegel’s plunge play out in the media (including this magazine’s June 2009 issue) as the financial crisis put a chokehold on his Westgate Resorts timeshare business just as he built a $1 billion resort on the Las Vegas Strip.
As big as Siegel, 77, was (and still is) in terms of wealth, his wife, Jacqueline, 46, was (and no doubt still is) bigger yet in terms of flaunting it. The latter is why I suspect the documentary about Siegel’s financial downfall came to be titled The Queen of Versailles. Showing at the Enzian theater in Maitland this month, the movie is the result of director Lauren Greenfield’s two years of filming the couple, most often at their 34,000-square-foot mansion. The film shows the Siegel home bursting at the seams, with eight children, several frou-frou lap dogs that are not housebroken, nannies and piles of clutter everywhere. The Siegels are hoarders, which complements the movie’s underlying theme of the consequences of wretched excess.
“Over the top” is a phrase that Jackie wears like one of her outfits that features a revealing bustline. Early in the movie she casually reveals that she spent about a million bucks a year on her wardrobe before her husband’s fortunes went south. Money is so tight that the kids have been moved into public schools and been warned they might actually have to go to college and support themselves. On a Christmas morning, while the kids and David seem numb as they unwrap one cheap present after another that Jackie bought at Walmart, the Queen glows as she treats herself to caviar that she says cost $2,000.
David Siegel’s narrative throughout the film is more focused, with him stressing over his financial problems from beginning to end. Watching Siegel—and even Jackie—take it on the chin will bring you little, if any, joy. You can’t help but admire Siegel’s resolve to rescue his company and complete Versailles, the American Dream on steroids.
Since the filming has wrapped, Siegel reportedly got Versailles, which had been put up for sale, out of foreclosure and he plans to complete it. However, he had to unload Westgate’s crown jewel in Vegas. Yet Siegel said in a statement that Westgate is more profitable than ever today and that the film isn’t a fair portrayal of the company. “I can handle people criticizing me or my family,’’ he said. “What I don’t like is someone manipulating reality to make it seem as if our company is unhealthy or doesn’t do business the right way.”
The Queen of Versailles could be a period piece about America’s rise and fall in the last decade. The Siegels may not be your typical American family, but their story is typical—albeit to the extreme—of the damage wrought by the Great Recession.
Go ahead and kick them if you like. But be warned, they’ll kick back.