The Queen of Versailles

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 June

 

John Maynard Keynes born, 1883

On this day in the 1883, the economist John Maynard Keynes was born, in Cambridge, to an economist father and a social reformer mother. A mathematics prodigy as a child, he won a scholarship to Eton College, then went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics on a scholarship, graduating in 1904. After a short career as a clerk in the India Office, Keynes resigned and returned to Cambridge, where he started studying economics. By 1909 he had published his first article on economics. By 1911 he was editor of The Economic Journal. By 1913 he had published his first book, Indian Currency and Finance. During the First World War he worked at the Treasury, where his work in the field of currency acquisition and manipulation got him noticed. He was the Treasury’s representative at the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War. Keynes believed that penalising Germany too heavily for the war would lead to further conflict and that an economically strong Germany would be good for all parties. His views were ignored. He wrote The Economic Consequences of Peace as a result, which predicted disaster in Europe as a result of the peace of Versailles. Throughout the 1920s he argued against a currency fixed to gold (and lost) and for the depreciation of the currency to boost jobs at home and make goods more affordable overseas (and lost). His Treatise on Money followed in the 1920s, which pointed out that money, prices and jobs are all interlinked – if people aren’t spending, jobs will suffer. In the 1930s he wrote The Means to Prosperity, which concluded that governments had taken the wrong approach to the 1929 Crash and should have spent their way out of recession, an argument so counter-intuitive politicians (who in the main manage economies as if they were household budgets, ignoring the wealth generating side of the equation) still cannot grasp it. In 1936 he published his most famous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, on which his fame as an economist rests. It is the bible of interventionist economist. As the Second World War came to an end Keynes became inaugural chairman of the World Bank and helped establish the Bretton Woods system, which ensured financial stability in the post War world. He also helped negotiate the huge loans that the US made to the UK at the end of the War. He died in 1946, his ideas in the ascendant, though he himself was toying with a revision of them – an injection of the “hidden hand” of Adam Smith, the classical liberal economist whose ideas about the beneficial workings of a free market he’d spent his lifetime arguing against.

 

 

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

David Siegel is 74 and owns the biggest timeshare company in the world. Together with Jaqueline Siegel, his 43-year-old trophy wife and former beauty queen, he’s building the “biggest home in America”. And Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is there to watch it happen – the sushi bar, the bowling alley, the sauna, the baseball field, yadda yadda. It’s a place inspired by a visit to Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. Well, that was the original plan. Until reality intervened.
Like Capturing the Friedmans before it, which started out making one documentary but ended up with something quite different, The Queen of Versailles is massively derailed by a large fly in the ointment, to mix messy metaphors. Viz: the economic collapse, as a result of which the Siegels go broke. Not broke broke, just broke in billionaire terms, obviously. But it does mean that Jaqueline has to start flying in a normal plane with normal people, that she has to hire her own Hertz rental car (and is taken aback by the absence of a driver). It’s somewhere round this point that Greenfield’s documentary gains traction, morphing from a point-and-gawp exposé of the very wealthy and not entirely tasteful, with “rich people say the cutest things” fascination, and turning into something which everyone who was stung by the economic downturn can relate to – albeit in a metaphorical manner. The staff are laid off, Jaqueline has her Hertz moment, and soon the devastation is beginning to pile up – the pet lizard dies, the tropical fish are belly up in their tank, there is dog shit on the carpets in the house because no one is cleaning up any more. The superhouse is in mothballs.
There’s nothing more depressing than watching an already poor family going through hard times. But watching rich people trying to tighten the belt, selling stuff, doing without luxuries, that’s less invasive, because it’s all relative and they’re not down to the last buck and anyway they invited the cameras in, no duress. But it’s the same basic process – the initial inability to understand the severity of the situation, followed by the taking of half-hearted measures, followed by lethargy, then panic laced with fantasy recovery scenarios. Spicing this is the Siegels themselves, outspoken in the way that people are when they don’t have to watch their tongues – David claims his possibly illegal machinations mean he was “personally responsible for the re-election of George Bush in 2000”. Lauren, for her part, is worried about being over 40 – “He told me that when I hit 40 he was going to trade me in for two 20-year-olds”. Against this we have the Filipino nanny who is sending money back to her child at home. The last time she saw him he was seven. He’s now 26. And there’s the limo driver, who also used to be a multi-millionaire, owned 19 properties, now has nothing and is driving cars. For David Siegel the whole thing has been a reality check – “we need to live within our means. Don’t spend money we don’t have.” In this sense Jaqueline – big silicone tits, bottle blonde, a touch of work done on the face – is the perfect stand in for all of us. Overpumped, over-caffeinated, in the dark, a slightly desperate smile and living on the hog.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The perfect 2008 recession documentary
  • The access
  • The pithy, outspoken Siegels
  • The real drama of watching things fall apart

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Queen of Versailles”

  1. I knew the back story to "Queen of Versailles" before I saw it, but I wasn't prepared for the extreme revulsion I felt for these characters, particularly David Segal. These folks are poster children for the worst extremes of our materialistic, narcissistic culture. Their values are money, ostentation, self-aggrandizement, acquisition and mindless hedonism. They are venomous leeches on society.

    Yet I felt pity for them as well, particularly Jackie. She's something of an enigma. She boasts about getting an engineering degree so she wouldn't have to work as someone's assistant, yet she mostly devotes herself to keeping young-looking and voluptuous (those breasts of hers deserve some sort of special effects award) so she can snag and keep a rich hubby. As her world starts to fall apart around her, she begins to have some insights about what life is really about (not building the world's biggest house), yet still can't abandon her out-of-control shopping sprees or torturous visits to the beauty clinic.

    The children, also, seem to be far more aware than their parents of the emptiness and ridiculousness of their lifestyle.

    Fortunately, I saw very little of myself in this abhorrent couple, but I did see some similarities to friends and family. Everyone is susceptible to greed and an inflated sense of self. This film shows what happens when that proceeds unchecked and fueled by obscene wealth.

  2. Schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The entire audience at the screening of The Queen of Versailles experienced this feeling about the Siegel family; they are truly atrocious people. Two years ago, David and Jackie Siegel were billionaires. They had planes, Rolls Royces, multiple nannies for their seven kids, hosted parties for the Miss America pageant while David flirted with the contestants, and sat on a golden throne in their Orlando house during interviews for this documentary. They also began construction on a mansion called Versailles, a project which would become the largest house in the entire United States.

    It appears the filmmakers wanted to document the rise of this monstrosity of a house and display the lifestyle of the obscenely rich. Even better, these rich people liked to flaunt in front of the camera, not enjoy their splendor in private ala Bill Gates. David Siegel proudly claims he is individually responsible for George W. Bush winning the state of Florida and therefore the presidency; however, he chuckles that what he did was not exactly legal. Oh yes, schadenfreude. David called himself the 'King of Time Shares'. He built 28 resorts and an enormous building on the Vegas strip, parceled them up, and sold them 52 different times to vacationers. Then, in what must have exceeded all of the filmmakers' expectations, the recession hit and everybody in the country stopped buying time shares.

    The Siegels were billionaires and yet, they had no savings. They paid cash for the Versailles house and only later put a mortgage on it because that meant millions more in ready, liquid money. They put nothing away for college funds for their kids. In fact, Jackie stares at the camera exclaiming her children might actually have to go to college now. The Siegels can no longer keep up with the Versailles mortgage payments and put it up for sale unfinished for $75 million. The housing market just crashed, tens of thousands of families are entering foreclosure, including Jackie's best friend, and the Siegels are trying to move a $75 million dollar mistake. The realtors may not be quite up to the task of marketing the house since one of the agents exclaims how unique Versailles (pronouncing it Versize) is.

    Nobody is buying time shares, therefore, there is no money coming in to the company, and David lays off 7,000 employees. He also fires 19 household servants. Dogs run around crapping all over the house and nobody picks it up. A lizard dies of lack of food and water, a fish floats at the top of its filthy tank, and one of the kids exclaims, "I didn't know we even had a lizard." Don't worry, Jackie still compulsively shops to add to the ridiculous piles of 'stuff' that the kids do not even know they have. She also maintains her plastic surgery regimen. Jackie's chest has enjoyed being a a third character in this whole mess.

    Other than the Michael Moore type of documentaries which have a stated agenda, filmmakers are thought to be neutral arbiters. They film the action, interview the subjects, and edit it in a way fair to all the players. However, no matter how one edits the footage, the Siegels are going to come off looking like some very horrible people. David is 30 years Jackie's senior and now that their funds are rapidly dwindling away, he is starting to get tired of his third wife. He hides in his office (a couch in front of a flat screen surrounded by papers and food scraps) to enjoy being away from the chaos which his house has become.

    You will not envy the Siegels. They still have more money than you do, but you would never switch places with them. I walked out of the theater with a new appreciation for my situation in life knowing that most of us are normal folks going about our business and enjoy time with our family and friends. The fact that there are folks like the Siegels out there, who by the way are shocked a bank bailout did not filter down to them, makes you shake your head in shame of the human race.

  3. As taken as I was with the lessons in Margin Call, a story about a Lehman Bros.-like mortgage brokerage firm in the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, The Queen of Versailles is more powerful. And it's not about brokers—it's about a family that accepts all that cheap money, buys blindly, and declines maybe even more than the rest of us because it spends more than a small nation could. It's not an American dream; it's a nightmare.

    At the beginning of this disturbing documentary, David Siegel owns Westgate Resorts, one of the world's largest timeshare companies. Worth billions, he spends those billions freely, aided by his clueless trophy wife, blonde and buxom beauty-contestant Jackie, who helps him plan the largest single-family home in the USA: 90,000 square feet of Versailles palace imitation—"kitsch" is perhaps the best descriptor.

    Slowly director Lauren Greenfield lets the nice David talk about their fortune and the home. At the same time, Jackie has eight children, stating that without nannies she would never have that many. When the market tumbles, the Segals face not finishing their home and severely reducing their lifestyle, but not Jackie's spending or her nannies.

    As in any good documentary, the players do all the heavy satirical lifting, in this case Jackie redefines white trash and the much older David clarifies the role men play who indulge their wives as long as they are hot and attentive. "Foolish old man" is an apt cliché for a decent guy who was smart enough to make billions, but not smart enough to avoid cheap money (which his timeshare sales staff sold in abundance itself to reckless, unsophisticated buyers—a sad irony for all involved) and a cheap wife.

    As the documentary glides inexorably to its conclusion, we are left with the impression of a decent man who couldn't control his appetites and a Pollyanna wife who couldn't control her spending. Be warned, this is not Inside Job, an insightful documentary about how all of us contributed to the crash; it is rather a depressing insider look at how so many bought into the cheap money trap and could not get out.

    My radio co-host and I had to take a half hour to detox from this misery before we could record our show in at least a minimal upbeat manner. The Queen of Versailles is unremittingly gloomy probably because a part of us all is hidden amongst that greed. And yet, it is in the best documentary tradition: truth will out.

  4. Rather than going the been-there-done-that route of a rags to riches story, director Lauren Greenfield accidentally (yet exquisitely) delivers a riches to rags tale with the intimate glimpse into the wealthy lives of David and Jackie Siegel. As the president and CEO of the largest timeshare corporation in the country, David is the epitome of the American dream, and his beauty pageant/trophy wife is living proof. While the film's initial purpose was to document the development of their 90,000 sq. ft. home (the largest in America), once the financial crisis of 2008 impacted banks globally, David soon finds his entire empire in jeopardy. Greenfield captures the highs and lows of being in the top 1%, even though most of the bottom 99% would love to give it a shot no matter the repercussions. (I always did want an ice rink in my home.) It's fascinating to watch the discourse between Mr. & Mrs. Siegel, two individuals who came from poverty, but have different interpretations of the importance of life. Watching the chaotic roller-coaster that is Jackie Siegel allows audiences the chance to laugh at the elite. At one moment you emphasize with the princess billionaire with the heart of gold, but once she attempts to classify herself as the "average" person, one can only watch with resentment. Either way, Greenfield, offers a crowd-pleasing documentary that leaves a lasting impression on audiences.

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