Bubble bursts for 1 percent family in fascinating 'Queen’
Riches To Rags Bubble bursts for 1 percent family in fascinating 'Queen’ by Lisa Jensen It's like the trashiest "reality" TV show ever. But there's no prize for the best or the biggest in The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield's train-wreck fascinating documentary on the wages of conspicuous consumption. It's ostentation for its own sake when one of the richest men in America and his trophy wife attempt to build themselves a palace—only to find themselves on a collision course with an economic reality they helped to create. Call it a cautionary tale, or call it karma, but it makes for a compulsively watchable, if chilling, glimpse into the bizarre private fantasy lives of the 1 percent.
David Siegel is the billionaire CEO of Westgate, owner and operator of 28 time-share resorts financed with the cash of ordinary people suckered into believing they could afford a hefty share of the American Dream. (Anyone still breathing qualified for a loan, notes one Westgate insider.) Siegel's blonde, buxom, flamboyant wife, Jackie, 30 years his junior, is a former model (and one-time Mrs. America), and mother of their seven children.
When the Siegels grew dissatisfied with their Florida home ("We're bursting out of the seams," says Jackie of their 17-bathroom, 26,000 square-foot mansion) and started building themselves a mammoth new one, "the biggest house in America," Greenfield came on board to document it. Little did anyone know when the project began that both the film and the Siegels' dream house would be interrupted by the financial meltdown of 2008.
Before the crash, the Siegels personify the concept of living large. The Westgate corporate headquarters boasts "the brightest sign on the (Vegas) Strip,” the only structure imposing enough to interfere with Donald Trump's view. Siegel money funds beauty pageants, charity dinners, and politics. David takes personal responsibility for getting George W. Bush elected in 2000. (When the interviewer asks for details, he demurs, adding with a smirk, "because it might not have been legal.") Asked why he's building the biggest house in America, a smug David replies, "Because I can."
Compulsive Jackie could easily spend a million dollars a year on clothes, she says, and her herd of white Pomeranians run riot, peeing and pooping all over the house. (When they die, she has them stuffed and strewn about like toss pillows.) Having children, too, became "an addiction" (not to mention an eighth child, a neglected niece she "inherited" from her brother). Especially when she got rich enough to have help. "I never would've had so many children if I couldn't have had nannies," Jackie reflects.
When times are flush, their plans for the new house are appropriately, appallingly grandiose. With a 90,000 square foot floor plan bigger than the White House, their dream palace is modeled on the Versailles of Louis XIV. (They got the idea from the Paris Las Vegas resort.) Plans include 10 kitchens, 30 bathrooms, a baseball field, a bowling alley, an ice/roller skating rink, and a spa. Five million dollars worth of marble tile are stowed on the grounds as the shell of the house goes up. A quarter-of-a-million-dollar stained glass window decorates one domed ceiling.
Their reactions to the financial collapse are illuminating. While trying to unload $350 million in assets (including private jets and the half-built palace), David vociferously blames "the lenders" for the same shady business practices with which he snookered people into his time-share pyramid schemes. Jackie has a less certain grasp of the situation, and wonders why the post-crash "rescue money" from the government hasn't filtered down to "the common people—you know, us."
It's almost touchingly naive how Jackie considers herself now one of the common folk. Forced into the sacrifice of flying on a commercial plane, she gets to the Hertz counter and expects a driver. Trying to economize by Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart instead of Saks, she still buys four cartloads of toys and junk that nobody wants, needs, or will ever even notice. As the strain of what David tartly calls their "riches-to-rags story" starts to tell on their empire, their marriage, and their enthusiasm for Greenfield's film, the Siegels gain a shade of rueful humanity, yet they remain stoic in their inability to disavow the casual greed and poisonous sense of entitlement that brought them to the brink of ruin.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
HHH (out of four)
With Jackie Siegel and David Siegel. A film by Lauren Greenfield. A Magnolia release. Rated PG 100 minutes.
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