Wednesday
July 23, 2014

The Queen of Versailles: A Dream Contorted

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The Queen of Versailles: A Dream Contorted

A new documentary tells the story of what happens when one family decides to start building the biggest house in America right before the Great Recession.

“The Queen of Versailles” opens on David and Jackie Siegel, an Orlando, Fla., power couple. David is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world. Jackie, the beauty-queen wife and mother of eight children, perches on her husband’s lap. As the story opens, in 2007, the Siegels are building the largest single-family home in the country. They call it Versailles, after the 17-century French royal palace of the same name.

Then the financial markets crash. Westgate’s business model—highly leveraged sales with mortgages quickly sold to investors—is no longer possible. Customers are having trouble paying for the timeshares they own. Westgate is sued for unpaid bills by the builder of its new 52-story tower in Las Vegas. Lenders try to get David to sell off the partially built Versailles and give up the nearly $400 million he has invested in the Vegas building.

Cue the tightening of the diamond-studded belt, right?

Thing is, director Lauren Greenfield hasn’t set out to create “Even More Desperate Housewives,” and her characters don’t seem all that Kardashian. “I wanted to tell a deeper, cinema verité story of an extraordinarily wealthy family that had the ambitious goal of building the biggest house in America,” Greenfield said in a statement accompanying the film’s release. “Their journey was a statement about the American dream and the challenge the crisis posed for that dream.”

Still, there are many jaw-dropping moments in which the cultural insensitivities of the ultra-rich are on full display. One cannot help but chuckle when a cost-cutting Jackie earnestly asks the Hertz car rental guy, “What’s my driver’s name?”

While that kind of voyeurism might bring audiences to this 2012 Sundance award winner, it’s not what the film is about. “The Queen of Versailles” thrives on contrasts, but because Greenfield was already filming the family before the financial meltdown, their bizarre adaptation to the crisis is surprisingly relatable.

"The Queen of Versailles" is available in select theaters around the country and on Netflix.

Jackie is the star of the show. She manages simultaneously to pull off being a contorted emblem of the American dream, a spoiled beauty queen, and tragically compassionate. “I grew up in a one-bathroom, three-bedroom house, and I can remember I would have to wait in line to use the bathroom,” Jackie says. “Growing up in Binghamton, New York, pretty much the only place to work and make money was IBM. I figured I could either be a secretary and work for an engineer, or I could be an engineer.”

She chose the latter—briefly—after earning a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. She then became a model, Mrs. Florida 1993, and eventually a full-time mom. Oh, and she’s got 17 bathrooms going on 30. Her sense of humor allows her to take screaming children, pouting husband, and financial troubles in stride.

The jewels in The Queen’s crown are a cast of characters who represent touching examples of the desire for home. Before moving in with the Siegels, Jackie’s virtually orphaned niece, Jonquil, slept in a dirt-floor basement. Still a surly teenager, this eldest Siegel functions as a down-to-earth anchor.

“I’ve had a taste of dirt poor and I’ve had a taste of filthy rich. And I mean, yeah, I like it. Who wouldn’t? Getting everything you want. But at the same time I still want to be the old me in a way,” Jonquil says. “Nothing’s really normal about this life.”

Perspective is also wrought large by nanny Virginia Nebab, who gives viewers a tour of a playhouse—long abandoned by the Siegel children—outside the family’s pre-Versailles “starter mansion.” Nebab uses the tiny structure as a refuge. “This is my palace,” Nebab says. “It’s good to have this. Like, when it’s too noisy in there, just run here. Quiet.” Back in the Philippines, her father dreamed of owning a “real” concrete house. She promised to save enough money to make it happen, but he passed away before she was able to.

"Every Filipino, it's our dream to have our own house," she says.

Then there’s limo driver Cliff Wright, who met the Siegels through their kids’ little league. When he was in commercial real estate, his net worth was “$3.5 million,” Wright says, “Now it’s zero.” He’s gone from owning 19 houses to renting from a friend. “It’s hard going back to renting,” he says, gesturing to his home’s stark interior. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s your house. It humbles you a lot.”

But the man with the biggest slice of humble pie on his plate is David Siegel himself. He refuses to turn the keys to his Las Vegas tower over to the bank, though it would mean Westgate could resume selling timeshares and that Versailles’ construction could restart. In a twist of unrecognized irony, David dedicates the Vegas tower to his deceased parents, whom his grown son Richard Siegel notes “were never wealthy [because] they lost their money in Las Vegas.”

David has his moments of introspection. “It’s a vicious cycle. No one is without guilt,” he says. “They were giving me cheap money, and I was using it to build big buildings and buy more resorts. And then when they stopped giving me the money, I’m suddenly, ‘Whoa. How do I pay for all this?’ ”

For her part, Jackie seems to accept the challenges in a way only a mother of eight could. “When you’re down, that’s when you find out who your true friends are,” she says. “If we had to buy just a normal house, like a $300,000 house... I’d be fine with that, make it work. Just get a bunch of bunk beds, you know?”

That’s why she’s the queen. 

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