In an on-camera interview, David Siegel crows that he got George W. Bush elected president. When asked how he did that, the Florida resident declines to give particulars, claiming his actions “might not have been legal.” His wife, Jackie, brags that she’s spent as much as $1 million a year on clothing, including $17,000 on a pair of Gucci crocodile boots.
The two big spenders are at the center of “The Queen of Versailles,” a brilliant and infuriating documentary that begins as a film about the American dream and ends as one about the American nightmare. It earned its director, Lauren Greenfield, a best director nod at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
David Siegel, 76, is the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, which he claims is “the largest privately owned time-share company in the world.” Jackie, 31 years his junior, is David’s surgically enhanced wife, and mother to seven of his 13 children. They live in a 26,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Fla., with a household staff of 19. They believe the house is too small.
So, in 2004, the couple set out to build another home, based on the palace of Louis XIV at Versailles and the Paris hotel in Las Vegas; at 90,000 square feet, if completed, it will be the largest in America. The house will have 10 kitchens — though Jackie doesn’t cook — 30 bathrooms, a bowling alley and a roller rink. The couple spent $5 million on marble alone. On a filmed tour of the construction site, Greenfield asks Jackie if a large area is her bedroom. Jackie replies, “That’s not my room. That’s my closet.”
All went well until the credit crunch of 2008. The Siegels’ problems weren’t caused by the house — though it did become a burden. Rather, David’s company ran into trouble as lending dried up. Typically, Westgate customers borrowed money from the company to pay for their vacation time-shares. The company, in turn, borrowed from the banks at lower interest rates. When the banks stopped lending, the bottom fell out.
Added to that difficulty was the burden of the PH Towers Westgate, a new 52-story high-rise luxury resort in Las Vegas, which drained Siegel’s corporate resources as well as $400 million of his own money. Finally, in November of 2011, Siegel was forced to sell.
“I didn’t think people like them would be affected by the economic crisis,” Greenfield, 46, told the Forward in a recent telephone interview. “I assumed that people with this kind of wealth would have a lot of money on the side — a cushion, some protection. It wasn’t until later that David told me he had signed personally for all the loans.”
At the end of the film, Greenfield captures the moment when the lights go out at the top of the building and the PH Towers Westgate becomes just the PH Towers.
“The Queen of Versailles” got its start in happier days, in 2007, when Greenfield was photographing Donatella Versace on assignment for Elle magazine. Jackie was there as one of the designer’s best customers. The two women took an immediate liking to one another.
“I was intrigued by her because of her wealth,” Greenfield said. “She showed me pictures of her seven kids on the steps of their private jet. She didn’t have the veil of privacy a lot of rich people have.”
Originally, the project was going to be a look at how the wealthy live and, of course, at the Siegel’s house-in-progress. It was very much in line with Greenfield’s previous work as a documentarian and photographer.