The Queen Of Versailles: An American Dream Story (In Reverse)
September 24, 2012
By: Livia Carron
After coming across an article in a Sunday supplement about a must-see, Sundance Award-Winning documentary, I headed over to the ICA in London to catch a screening. The Queen of Versailles is a look at the lifestyle of David Siegel, his wife Jacqueline and their 8 children. Oh and let’s not forget, their 19 housekeeping staff, zoo-like quantity of animals (alive, dead and stuffed – I’ll get to that later) and the 26,000 sq. ft. home they are upgrading for, at a staggering 90,000 sq. ft., what’s set to be the largest home in America.
Yes, this is far more than your average celebrity reality show which, in comparison, only touches on the surface of the lifestyles of the rich. In fact, the spending habits of the Siegels make the likes of the Kardashians seem like money conscious shoppers. Jacqueline defends the new build by explaining that their current home is “bursting at the seams,” and as the camera follows her down cluttered corridors, it is clear that with enough spare time and more than enough spare money, even a home the size of a supermarket can become uncomfortably cramped.
She may look every inch the archetypal blonde bimbo, but Jacqueline has brains as well as beauty. With a computer engineering degree under her belt, her transition from office worker to model came after a colleague showed her a programme he had built to count down, to the second, the time left until his retirement; for retirement, he explained, was when his life would actually begin. After this, tech savvy Jacqueline quit her job and threw herself into a successful modelling and beauty pageant career. It was through the Miss America Foundation that Jacqueline first met David Siegel, CEO and founder of Westgate Resorts – the world’s largest privately owned timeshare company. Former Miss Florida Jacqueline admits, “it took me a while to fall in love with [David],” but, as clichés go, the pageant queen and the wealthy business man married and started a family and lived happily ever after. That is, until September of 2008.
The subprime mortgage crisis in America had been bubbling away for some years, but in this fateful September it came to a head, and the effects were felt by bankers, businessmen and average Joes alike. For Westgate Resorts, amid launching their new timeshare tower in Las Vegas, it could not have come at a worst time. Westgate Resort timeshare owners typically have mortgages on their properties and, as a result, the company was quickly faced with property foreclosures, mass redundancy and utter financial meltdown. Even with his host of influential connections, including Donald Trump and George W. Bush, David struggled to save his treasured Las Vegas resort.
Like his clients, David took out mortgages on his properties; although he was able to buy them outright, he opted for mortgages so that he could use the remaining money in his business. Hence, the family faced a similar fate to the company, and were forced to put their, not yet completed, Versailles inspired home on the market. Already $50 million into the build, and at least a further $25 million from completion, the asking price was a heart-stopping $100 million. All through this, director Lauren Greenfield captured the family adjusting to a life where money was no longer a fall back, and severe spending cuts became a necessity.
After getting rid of 15 of their staff, it became almost impossible for the remaining 4 housekeeping to look after the home and the children. As the dogs had never been house trained, they regarded the floor as their litter tray, and their predecessors – beloved pets who had been stuffed – lay around the house collecting dust. Other, more exotic pets, went missing in the clutter or were forgotten about and died from starvation.
The film examines poverty on a variety of scales: Although the Siegels are in big economic trouble, their financial difficulties are no way near the traditional picture of poverty. In contrast, one of the members of the housekeeping staff – a mother from the Philippines who had not seen her son in almost 20 years – poignantly speaks of moving to Florida in order to earn money to send home to her family. Standing outside of her bedroom, a discarded playhouse originally built for the children, Virginia talks of how her father aspired to have a concrete house of his own and that, in a sense, the concrete tomb in which he is buried fulfils this. The lives of Jacqueline and Virginia could not, at first glance, seem further apart and yet, ultimately, they are both women who went in search of a better life and, in their own ways, achieved it.
Speaking about his business before the financial crisis, David states, “Everyone wants to be rich. If they can’t be rich, then the next best thing is to feel rich.” However, wealth, and even just the feeling of having it, always involves some level of financial commitment. It was in an ironic twist of fate that the Siegels lost both the money and the feeling; they became their target market. In this ‘rags to riches to rags’ story, it is clear that life is more a viscous cycle of loss and gain than a straightforward ladder of success, and that the victor can easily become the victim.
The Queen of Versailles is currently showing across the UK, with one off nationwide screenings happening on the 2nd October. More details can be found on the website.