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January 14, 2013 11:49 AM Movie Review: Queen of Versailles

By Harold Pollack

My friend Keith Humphreys posts many movie reviews. I’ll step on his turf today. On the recommendation of some friends, I finally caught the documentary: Queen of Versailles. Ezra Klein likes it a lot:

The Queen of Versailles” began as a documentary about a time-share billionaire, his ditzy wife, and their grotesque quest to build the largest house in the United States of America. It ended as perhaps the single best film on the Great Recession.

I liked it too, for somewhat different reasons. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this film is that it was made at all. I’m flabbergasted that Jackie and David Siegel consented to its production. (They have apparently filed a defamation suit. Unless some fantastic degree of fabrication occurred, the basic story seems clear.)

The second-most-astonishing aspect of this film is even sadder. I tuned in expecting to see the usual diverting reality-TV real-estate porn. Yet the wealth generated and consumed in this film just provides very little value or real enjoyment to anyone.

David Siegel runs Westgate Resorts. He made his money by selling people timeshares they really can’t afford. For a time, Westgate generates great opulence for the Siegel family. But what comes of that wealth? Unlike (say) Steve Jobs, David Siegel doesn’t create beautiful and useful innovations that make our lives noticeably better. Unlike Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Siegel has no philanthropic vision to channel his wealth for worthy purposes.

Unlike millions of prosperous, albeit less cosmically-wealthy Americans, the Siegels don’t seem to use their wealth to make people close to them safe and happy. David Siegel’s checkered history with his adult son exemplifies things. Their relationship is strictly business. Then there is Jackie’s high school best friend. She’s a single mom who ends up in foreclosure. Jackie sends her $5,000 in an apparently unsuccessful effort to forestall the foreclosure. If I had the cash to construct a $100 million mansion, my best friend wouldn’t lose her modest home.

The Siegel family’s spiritual emptiness—I don’t know how else to say it– is rather heartbreaking. The Siegel children don’t seem to be turning out very well –except perhaps for his teenage daughter who in one scene rightly and righteously chews Siegel out for being a jerk to the rest of the family. It’s hardly surprising that the kids are irresponsible and bratty, given their father’s narcissism and plain meanness.

Jackie Siegel is a beautiful, sweet, and vacuous trophy wife. She accumulates warehouses full of expensive junk for what is expected to be America’s biggest mansion. She has too many kids, too many toys, too many rooms, animals, too many nannies and servants. She even has too many inches on her bustline after (what I assume to be) ludicrous surgical enlargement shown off through her correspondingly ridiculous cleavage-displaying wardrobe.

Her husband treats her with blatant disrespect. When she turns forty, he jokes that he will replace her with two twenty-year-olds. Or maybe when she’s sixty he will replace her with three twenty-year-olds. He comments on camera that being married to her is like having another child.

Westgate teeters on the edge of collapse when it’s hit by the financial crisis. Both Siegel and his adult son protest that the banks got them hooked on cheap credit and are now trying to take over the jewels of their empire. Truthfully, though, everyone seems to lose in this story. The banks don’t get their principal back. The huge mansion is last seen as an unfinished and unsold construction project. Westgate teeters on the edge of ruin. Employees are laid off. Timeshare owners are foreclosed or left holding the bag for an over-valued properties.

We get to know two responsible adults in the entire film. The first is the limo driver (himself a failed real estate speculator). We also watch a heartrending interview with their Philippine nanny who relaxes in a big former playhouse of the Siegel children and who sends money back to her real family overseas.

I take it from later news that Siegel eventually landed on his feet. I guess that’s good. During the 2012 campaign, he got public attention as one of those crazy entitled CEOs who threatened to fire his workforce if Obama won reelection. In the end, Siegel didn’t go through with it.

I take it that he’s back on top again. He’s restarting construction on his 90,000 square-foot palace. It’s an old story, though. This man remains a pitiful figure.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.