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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.
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.
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 brokersit'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 buyersa 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.
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.
There is a famous, though fictional, exchange in which F. Scott
Fitzgerald says "The rich are different from you and I" and Hemingway
replies, "Yes, they have more money." That quote suits this film's
central character, Jackie, whose tendency towards excess is magnified
to an insane level by seemingly limitless wealth.
The movie is about how Jackie, her tycoon husband David and their children and employees deal with a crushing recession that forces them to struggle to live within their means.
Even though they are never broke, they genuinely do struggle because Jackie has satisfied too many whims, filling her house with pets and children and furniture and other things that require servants and lavish spending to keep going.
The movie could easily have caricatured Jackie, whose giant fake breasts and obsessive shopping are qualities that could make her seem white trash, but she comes across as a reasonably intelligent, generally nice person who simply has no concept of "enough." If she were poor she would probably be in debt because she collected memorial plates or something, but because she's rich she has collected everything.
David is less likable, a cold, brusque businessman with a sense of entitlement. As the movie begins he show overwhelming confidence; it's easy to see how the sort of person who can build up a big business is the sort of person who never has insecure thoughts like, "did my wife marry me for my money." David claims in the movie to have personally made GW Bush president, but even though he expresses doubt about whether that was a good idea, because of the wars that resulted, after this movie came out he threatened his employees with job loss if Obama beat Romney, so I'd say he is as awful as he seems in the movie.
One of the best qualities of this movie is how non-judgmental it is. It shows its characters being both thoughtless and thoughtful and it gives them a chance to represent themselves to the camera; it's a movie that has no interest in being a hatchet job. At the same time, it juxtaposes their problems with those of one of their nanny's, whose situation is far sadder; it also has no interest in being a whitewash.
The even-handedness of this film means you are free to see the characters as you like. Some reviewers here reacted very differently from me, seeing David as a hard working businessman stuck with a white trash gold digger, or seeing them both as odious monsters. If you hate the rich, that will probably be your reaction, but if you *are* the rich, you would probably see this as a reasonable portrayal. In fact, if you're rich enough you probably wouldn't see anything wrong with the way they live. (Rich people are different than you and I; they think living like millionaires is normal.)
Overall this is a very engrossing and admirable film that made me feel some sympathy for people who, in the natural order of things, I would consider leeches on the belly of America.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's a surprisingly complex scene in "The Queen of Versailles,"
Lauren Greenfield's newest documentary, in which the subject, Jackie
Siegel, is travelling to Binghampton, New York to visit the
neighborhood in which she grew up. After getting off the airplane and
making a stop in Elmira, she and her children find themselves at a
Hertz Rent-a-Car counter. First, she explains to the clerk that flying
commercial for the first time was bizarre. Second, she asks the clerk
for the name of her driver. The clerk can only stare at her in stunned
disbelief. We're left wonder: Has Ms. Siegel truly been so privileged
as to genuinely expect a driver as part of a rental car, or is she well
aware of how the Hertz system actually works and is merely performing
for the camera, knowing full well that the main focus of the
documentary is her?
Jackie's life has been nothing if not a climb up the social ladder, during which she had earned a bachelor's degree in computer engineering technology, worked at Citigroup, was briefly in a relationship with Donald Trump, and had been a model, her efforts rewarded in 1993 when she was crowned Mrs. Florida. In 1996, at the age of thirty, she met sixty-year-old David Siegel, a real estate broker who amassed billions after buying an eighty-acre plot of orange groves in Orlando and turning it into Westgate, a private time-share resort that, since its inception, has expanded to twenty-seven other locations, including Las Vegas. David and Jackie married in 2000, would over the next nine years have eight children (including an adopted niece), and in 2006 oversaw the start of the construction of their 90,000 square-foot Orlando dream home.
They have dubbed it Versailles, and true to its name, it's modeled after the famous French château. Standing at nearly seventy feet tall, the incomplete palace sits on ten acres of lakefront property. The house itself consumes an entire acre. When completed, it will have thirteen bedrooms, twenty-two bathrooms, nine kitchens, a bowling alley, a roller-skating rink, an arcade, an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a spa, and staff quarters. The kids will have an entire wing made just for them, complete with a living room, a computer center, and a movie theater. The adults will have a theater of their own, as well. Jackie takes Greenfield on a tour of the grand ballroom, which, even in its unfinished state, is a sight to behold. Two staircases sweep down on either end of the 120-foot long, sixty-foot-wide room, which has French balconies and a six-foot-high glass dome built into the ceiling.
Construction had to be halted in 2009 due to the faltering financing for Westgate, a direct result of the 2008 economic collapse. Versailles, which the banks are threatening to foreclose on, sits only 60% complete, with no interior walls, no plumbing, and no electricity. The 200 crates of Italian marble they had imported specifically for this project lies unused in the twenty-car garage. As for the Siegels, with David's company in upheaval and his personal fortune deeply affected (he suddenly found himself around $1.2 billion in debt with no real savings), he and his family moved indefinitely into the 27,000 square- foot home intended to be a temporary residence until Versailles' completion. By most standards, that would be more than an adequate amount of space for a family of ten. For the Siegels, Jackie's extravagant shopping has left the house in a state of clutter.
"The Queen of Versailles" is nothing if not a cautionary tale of wretched excess, fueled by the relentless yet hollow pursuit of the American Dream. We now live in a time when the country's population has been categorized into one of two percentiles; here is a profile of two proud one-percenters, one of whom defines herself by living beyond her means. We see her buying shopping carts full of board games from Wal- Mart and turning them into Christmas gifts. We see that she still has a limo driver, who in one scene takes her to McDonald's, and maids from the Philippines, one of whom lives rather comfortably in the children's former playpen and laments about the family she never gets to visit. We see one of Jackie's dead pet dogs on display in a glass case, having been worked on by a taxidermist. We see entitlement and irresponsibility in her niece, whose excuse for letting her pet lizard die was not being driven to a pet store.
"The Queen of Versailles" was originally marketed as a "rags to riches to rags story," prompting David to sue Greenfield and the Sundance Institute for defamation. He even says near the end of the film that he doesn't want his company to be portrayed as going completely under. Ultimately, Jackie attended the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as if she were a celebrity and is said to have enjoyed it. But according to an interview with Susan Berfield of Businessweek.com, she's also baffled by the way her lifestyle is criticized. "You would think they would be happy for someone living the American Dream," she said. "Why is everyone so concerned about how we spend our money? We give a lot to charity. We keep the economy going." David adds his two cents: "There's always been rich and poor, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. It's like a prison. If you only have prisoners and no guards, you'd have chaos." Now there's something to mull over.
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)
This movie was planned to be a documentary about the biggest house in
America, but after the crash of 2008 occurred shortly after filming
began, the director turned it into a story of the economic collapse.
We're familiar with the stories of the many ordinary people who lost
their jobs in 2008-09; this film is a story of people who despite being
very rich--at least on paper--were also victims although perhaps mostly
of their own bad judgment. I expected to hate the Siegels, but I did
not. Although they're not people with whom I would want to spend
personal time, they come across as merely shallow, immature and maybe
even naive people who became addicted to money and spending and
suffered the consequences.
The film shows laughable yet slightly shocking scenes of people who equate stuff with happiness and excess with success. "Versailles" is never finished (the house plays a bit part in the movie) but the home they live in is ridiculous in its own way: It's luxurious, but also filthy. Unhousebroken dogs poop all over the place, every room is cluttered, stuff spills out of closets, one daughter is obese and it's obvious the hired help can't keep up.
The movie takes time to give personal histories of both Mr. and Mrs. Siegel and it's easy to see how they turned out the way they did: Mr. Siegel's parents were gamblers, and although they lost their money in Las Vegas and their son became rich, the movie shows how really he is a gambler and big spender as well. Mrs. Siegel is not merely a "trophy wife" although her sexist husband sees her that way; she has an engineering degree and made money as a model before her marriage. Despite her shopping addiction, disorganization and extremely poor housekeeping skills, it's clear she's a savvy survivor who has a tendency to get what she wants. The movie also features some interviews with other family members including two teenage daughters. Their comments are extremely honest, both about their parents and about wealth. The heartbreaking interview, however, is with the Filipina nanny. In her brief tale, she gives a glimpse into Third World poverty that shows how lucky the Siegels really are.
From what I've read the Siegels are back on their feet; like most rich people, they did not suffer in the way that most of us have suffered. Yet it is clear that they did suffer. The film is not judgmental and I have to give the Siegels credit for allowing the filmmaker to film intimate details of their life, giving us a glimpse into the lives of people who are addicted to money and spending. In the end you'll have to judge for yourself if you envy or pity the Siegels. My own take was that their view of life is so foreign to mine that what they would call happiness I would only call boredom.
Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield should be commended for her balanced,
outrageous and utterly charming documentary that follows the lives of
gazillionaire Jackie and David Siegel. Here's a couple living the
American dream thanks to the savvy business acumen of David Siegel, the
king of time shares. It follows them in their good times and as they
tighten their belts to deal with the titanic crash when the financial
bubble burst in 2008.
For the average American, the scenario of the economy going south has a sameness that though tragic has a familiarity...job loss, home loss etc. Watching this family teetering on losing it all after spending fortunes on homes, nannies, limos, parties etc. feels voyeuristic yet cathartic as in...well...you can fall down, but what does it feel like when you fall off a mountain? I've read David Siegel has been unhappy with the portrayal of his home and family in the news recently and quite frankly, there's a lack of information at the end of the film. It ends on a note of suspense but I think this is the filmmaker's decision to leave the audience on top of the shifting sands and the realization that you can't take anything for granted in our capitalist society, not even huge economic success. This was the filmmaker's message and the valid right one. We don't know what happens to this family after the film ends...however, I for one ran to my computer to look up any information because I was, well, concerned. I think most who see this film will do as I did.
In other words, it's hard for a viewer of any background to not find this family appealing, even if you want to hate those who tend to excess. (And yes...the largest house in America that David is building is excess, way beyond any shopping foibles Jackie makes.) This is a well made, hugely entertaining documentary. In my opinion, the beauty as well is this family could be any family that's had a huge economic advantage. David and Jackie came from humble beginnings and David built an empire and married his "Queen". This film has now brought him out of perhaps an obscurity he'd prefer, but that's the price of becoming a public figure and I'd hope he'd embrace this and get beyond his personal belief that perceptions about him are impacted negatively by this film...if anything they show him a highly motivated businessman who's taken on a lot in both his business and personal life and his wife comes off as human and charming beneath the Miss America exterior.
This filmmaker has shown strengths and flaws of how money or the lack of it can impact a family and has done so in a highly creative, sensitive way that embraces all this family is. Focusing on a very rich one being victimized by the same powers affecting the rest of us...well...after all, let's face it, aspiring to be able to have no financial worries is the American dream and seeing it potentially ripped away so easily after all that work makes for huge entertainment but is, at the same time, quite sobering. It makes this film a must see for anyone seeking thought provoking commentary on today's economics, the reality that bad times can happen to anyone and is anyone ever really prepared.
"The Queen of Versailles" is an extremely unusual documentary, and I
can only assume the histrionic nature of the Siegel family is why the
film was ever made. It consists of a camera crew following this family
(and in particular Jackie and her husband David) during a period which
appears to be about two years to three. I honestly cannot expect most
families being willing to have their lives chronicled and disrupted
like this--particularly because the second half of the film shows the
family at their worst. Odd, that's for sure.
When the film begins, David Siegel is an incredibly wealthy man. He's made his fortune with his vast empire of time share properties and because he is so wealthy, he and his wife are in the process of building a new home they nickname 'Versailles'. It is projected to be the largest single family home in America! During most of this period of the film the camera follows Jackie--a woman who seems to love the attention and who lives a charmed life of luxury.
Part-way through the film, however, comes the market and housing crash of 2008. And with it, disposable incomes have diminished--making selling of time shares almost impossible. Additionally, bank financing, which had previously been easy to obtain by David, suddenly evaporated--leaving his heavily leveraged empire on the brink of collapse. During this period of the film, Jackie has come to accept that she WON'T be moving into the new palace--and they might lose their current home as well. She handles this by shopping.
It's rather hard to adequately rate this film. On one hand, the filmmakers have provided a wholly unique film showing these folks--warts and all. And, it is well constructed and compelling. But on the other hand, there really is nothing to like or admire about these folks. Despite their wealth, they seem spiritually impoverished, self-centered and sad...profoundly sad. In fact, after seeing the film, my entire family felt depressed and insisted we watch something uplifting or fun. Seeing this film is anything but fun and it's not even good for someone wanting to laugh at the Siegels. They aren't funny....just profoundly sad. A very sad marriage, spoiled kids, a love of money, looks and possessions...all quite depressing to witness.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
You couldn't write a screenplay like this if you tried. Sometimes the
best source of drama is reality itself, and "The Queen of Versailles"
offers plenty of interesting odd situations. Some of the scenes can
only be classified as absurd, as we can only sit there and witness the
extravagant maneuvers made by the Siegel family.
I went in to see how anyone could come up with rather impractical idea of "replicating", in a loose way, Versailles in America. The director gives us a good introduction where we can imagine how these wealthy people can believe such plans are possible. We learn about their backgrounds, and how Mr. Siegel seems to have plenty of capital to treat himself to that real estate dream. Along comes his third Mrs., and she's a more interesting woman than I thought she could be. She appears intelligent, loving, a bit lost in her dream world as she takes cares of her personal whims and manages to at least be aware of her family. She seems to be honest about who she was, who she is, and we even believe she hasn't lost her connections to what really matters. The problem is she doesn't truly understand reality changes around her until it is a bit too late.
There are plenty of memorable scenes in the film, and it is the intimate moments inside their home that make us notice and care about what is happening to them. At first we are voyeurs because these are real people, and in an era of "reality TV", we want to see how crazy and extravagant this family is. As the film progresses, we are see that not everyone here is as disconnected as the Mrs. We get testimony from the nannies who can see this is not a happy household. There is an army of employees and nannies, so we know communication is broken. We hear about a child who prefers to sleep with a person who gives him the attention his parents are not providing. We know that when these servants disappear, there will be some critical exchanges between a few of the members of the family.
It is after the financial crisis begins and deepens that we start being enveloped by the darkness that closes in around the household. We see how their resources become limited and disappear, and some of the scenes are hilarious. You can't help but chuckle as the inquires about the drivers at the car rental place, and the discovery of the unattended pets is horrible but still manages to elicit a laugh because it is so unbelievable.
The film offers some hard truths many won't like to hear, and it might be more than a journey through the lives of a wealthy family that has its rude awakening. The documentary crew shows us the connection of these people to mere mortals like us, and it is there when it becomes chilling because if it happens to them, it might also happen to anyone.
"Versailles" deserves a viewing since it is a reflection of the times, and truth might not always be pretty.
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