Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Glimpse of the High and Mighty. And Greedy. And Gaudy.

Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles

She is emblematic of everything that’s wrong and right with America. Jackie Siegel comes across as the antithesis of a feminist. At 43, married to an affluent dirty old man of 74 named David Siegel, the zaftig blonde has an obsession with cosmetic enhancements, is a compulsive consumer, and remains oblivious to the world’s realities. On the other hand, the ditzy woman is sweet and kind, quietly giving money to a high school friend in crisis. Those contradictions make her the ideal subject for a fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles. In the non-fiction film genre of human train wrecks – think 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans – this project directed by Lauren Greenfield zeroes in on a billionaire family’s fall from grace. And it once again proves that grace often can be a spectacular facade built on quicksand.

They were constructing a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by both the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and the French palace where Marie Antoinette once dwelled, head intact. But the place, on target to become the largest private residence in the nation, is being built on the figurative quicksand of Florida real estate. Sin City itself, where David’s massive Planet Hollywood Tower Westgate is opening, will become equally vulnerable when the recession of 2008 hits.

David and Jackie Siegel on their gold throne
Schadenfreude is inevitable for those of us in a less exalted tax bracket but this cautionary tale of truly wretched excess remains even-handed. That didn’t stop David Siegel from launching a lawsuit; he contends the deck was stacked against him personally and his company, Westgate Resorts, which owns 28 time-share properties across the country. Customers pay thousands of dollars to spend just three nights a year in luxury suites because “everyone wants to vacation like a rock star.” Greenfield has said that her process involved cinéma vérité combined with interviews, so his complaint may be a case of talker’s remorse.

In 2007, a year before the downturn, the Siegels are introduced while sitting on a gold throne and candidly discussing their vast wealth, blissfully unaware of the empire’s impending decline. The couple, their seven children, numerous white Pomeranians and a staff of 19 servants are squeezed into a “starter mansion” near Orlando that’s a mere 26,000 square feet. In addition to taking care of the Siegels, the maids must clean up poop left behind by the dogs, which are not house-trained and seemingly never taken for walks. When they die, the beloved pooches are stuffed and used as decorations. Good taste is not part of the equation.

Director Lauren Greenfield
Jackie, whose effervescent sense of humor contrasts with David’s grumpiness, was born into a family of modest means in Upstate New York. Although smart enough to graduate from Renssalear Polytechnic Institute with a computer engineering degree, she chose a less intellectual path by waitressing, cleaning dead bodies at a nursing home, modeling and entering beauty pageants. After an abusive first marriage to another kingpin, her life of comfort was guaranteed when she met David. His lack of physical attractiveness was balanced by a trophy wife’s feeling that, as she describes the relationship, it’s “wonderful to be so adored.”

Not as much adored a decade later, Jackie’s generally busy shopping, getting Botox injections, showing off her Gucci ostrich-feather pants or worrying aloud that her husband had joked that he’d trade her for two 20-year-olds when she turned 40. They’re still together, but maybe not for long. In 2008, he was successfully sued by a former Westgate employee for sexual harassment, a fact not mentioned in the Oscar-worthy The Queen of Versailles. But Greenfield’s camera does observe him ogling Miss America contestants who attend a party at the Siegel abode. In a cringe-inducing sequence, he even appears to be propositioning one young woman and asks a cluster of them if they’d rather be with a handsome guy or a filthy rich guy. His status is changing, however, as both the new Sunshine State digs and the Vegas Strip development are threatened with foreclosure.

This is an era when Mitt Romney, who hopes to add a $55,000 car elevator to the planned expansion of his $12 million oceanfront California vacation home, could be elected president. Ardent Republican David was planning to trade in the 17 bathrooms at his current hacienda for 30 in the $150 million Versailles, which would also feature 10 kitchens, a roller rink, a bowling alley, a health spa, three hot tubs, a sushi bar, an entire children’s wing and a wine cellar suitable for 20,000 bottles. The walls certainly might be able to accommodate the many photographs and painted portraits of the adult Siegels – narcissism run amok! – some with them dressed as royalty. They would finally be able to take all their genuine Louis the XIV antique furniture out of storage.

Jackie, Children and Pomeranian
When hard times arrive, the Siegels must downsize to just four servants. The survival skills of shopaholic Jackie are questionable. She condescends to visit Walmart, leaving the store with seven carts full of shmatas and tchotchkas from China. She takes a stretch limo to pick up lunch from McDonald’s. Pet lizards and fish die in their tanks. The household is dispirited. Upon renting a car for a visit to her hometown, she wants to know the name of the chauffeur who’ll be driving it. The clan’s Gulfstream jet is taken away and, forced to fly commercial, one of the kids asks: “Mom, what are all these strangers doing on our plane?”

The bubble has burst. Business dealings get murky. The Vegas Westgate tower, a sort of Watergate in the desert, lays off about 7,000 salespeople. The expensive time-shares were aggressively sold to people who really couldn’t afford them but went into debt anyway. The Siegel sub-prime credit scheme is much like the one that allowed banks to bring the global economy to its knees. Now those banks are nibbling at David’s heels. He retreats to his study, desperate to somehow solve the mess and growling at anyone who approaches. The sugar daddy is souring.

Good witch Jackie starts a thrift store for the unemployed, filling it with many of her own possessions. Bad witch Jackie eats from a $2,000 tin of caviar on Christmas morning. Apparently, you can take the girl out of Versailles but you can’t take Versailles out of the girl.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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