If you like documentaries, as I do, then I highly recommend The Queen of Versailles. The film profiles a rich timeshare guy named David Siegel who married a trophy wife (former Miss America, I believe) and they had a slew of kids. Despite the fact that they lived in a huge mansion in an exclusive gated community in Orlando, they wanted a bigger house.
They planned to build the biggest house in the United States. And they called it “Versailles” because it was modeled after the famous French Palace. The cost of the house would have been well over $100 million. This was before the real estate meltdown. The Siegels, like many other folks, were super-optmistic, and greedy. They were also pathetically self-absorbed, which is why they agreed to let a filmaker named Laura Greenfield follow them around for a few years. Big mistake.
The movie is fascinating because it starts like a typical reality TV show, except instead of Ozzy Osbourne or Gene Simmons, it’s a time-share real estate mogul. A big time-share business is more like a super-rock band (e.g. KISS or Black Sabbath) than you’d expect. So there is the voyeueristic appeal of seeing into the private lives of some quirky rich people, and the people that cater to them.
But what’s really interesting is how the Siegels come to grips with the economic downturn, which threatened every project he had going, including his cherished “Versailles.”
Early in the film, Siegel proudly claims that he alone was responsible for getting George Bush elected because of his work in Florida (which he says, on camera, he doesn’t want to discuss because what he did “might be illegal”). Flash forward to late 2008, when the bottom is dropping out of the financial system, and when Siegel and his tribe have to face some serious cutbacks.
He has to forego his limos and jet plane, and cut his household staff from 13 to 4. His wife’s dogs are pooping all over the mansion and no one has time to pick it up, so they step in crap from time to time. The kids don’t feed their lizard so it dies, and one of them complains it’s because no one would take her to the pet store to get more food (the house is filled with food and no doubt some of it would have saved the lizard).
Clearly they have too much stuff, and not enough people to manage it. But that doesn’t stop his wife from continuing to binge-shop, buying obscene amounts of toys that she has to cram into 3 cars. When they get home they pass through the garage, which is strewn with toys and bicycles that kids don’t play with anymore. They don’t have time to use all the crap they have, much less take care of it.
In the end, Siegel is bitter and astonished that his empire has crumbled. He says his kids they may have to get real jobs when they graduate from high school, and that they’ll have to borrow money for college (he never put any away for their college education). He blames his misfortune on greedy bankers, and never once acknowledges any responsibility for miscalculation or excessive borrowing.
And now that the film is out and getting attention, he’s even more bitter (and unable to accept responsibility). So he’s suing the filmaker for defamation. But a U.S. Judge doesn’t seem to believe his case has merit. What a shock!
One of my favorite parts of the movie is when Siegel is talking to the Orlando real estate agent who is supposed to find a buyer for Versailles (which is only half-way finished). The agent is supposed to be an expert in luxury properties, but she keeps pronouncing ‘Versailles’ with an ‘s’ at the end. It’s a small thing, yet somehow compelling.
Many of the people in the movie have lots of money (or had it), but virtually none of them have any self-awareness. Apparently, that can lead to big problems.