For those who missed it in theatres, Lauren Greenfield's documentary, "The Queen of Versailles" is now available on DVD, iTunes, and other outlets. One of the year's most critically-acclaimed films, it has been hailed by The Washington Post as "perhaps the single best film on the Great Recession."
"The Queen of Versailles" is a portrait of entitlement gone mad. Near the beginning, billionaire timeshare mogul David Siegel is asked why he has undertaken to build the biggest house in America. “Because I can,” he matter-of-factly responds.
But that was before the market collapse, and what begins as “an intimate look at how the 1 percent live,” Greenfield told NPR, gradually becomes “an allegory about...the overreaching of America and how we all overextended in different ways: taking out too much money from our houses, using our houses as piggy banks, building too big. And these are people that you thought would never be affected by the recession or the crash because they had so much padding and so much wealth. In a way, this kind of happened to all of us, and that's really what I want people to get from their story."
The Siegels dream deferred (Versailles is still under construction) was an object lesson for Robert Frank, who profiled the couple in his book, “The High-Beta Rich.” The self-described “riches to rags” story of David, then 74, founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, and his wife Jacqueline, 43, a former Mrs. Florida, thrums with the Siegels’ unbridled hubris as they begin construction on their 90,000 sq.-feet, 15 bedroom and 30 bathroom home modeled after Versailles.
“Is this your room,” a friend of Jacqueline asks as she is given a tour of the unfinished estate. “That’s my closet,” Jacqueline replies.
But David’s situation becomes increasingly desperate with the market collapse. As cash flow is cut off, he is forced to lay off thousands of employees and abandon offices. The house is never finished and goes on the market: $75 million “as is.” Not many people can afford a home in that range, the Siegels’ chauffeur remarks.
But “The Queen of Versailles” is more than a cautionary tale. It is a testament to the importance of financial literacy. More than half of American adults go without a household budget and 40 percent give themselves a “C,” “D” or “F” on financial knowledge, according to the 2012 Financial Literacy Survey released last April. Further, roughly 40 percent lacks a “rainy day fund” in case of emergencies and does not have any other type of savings outside of retirement accounts.
Even billionaire families are not immune. At one point, David confesses that he has not set money aside for retirement. Jacqueline frets that the children may now have to go to college and they had better start thinking about what they want to do when they grow up.
Jacqueline’s unbridled spending is revealed to be less a case of conspicuous consumption than it is she is in the dark about the family’s financial situation. She jokes that David never talks to her about finances and that she will probably have to wait to see the movie to learn the true state of his finances.
Siegel was back in the news recently. In October, a letter he wrote to his employees threatening layoffs if President Obama was elected went viral. "Of course, as your employer, I can't tell you whom to vote for, and I certainly wouldn't interfere with your right to vote for whomever you choose," he wrote, later adding, "If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company."
But there's a happy ending. Instead of layoffs, Siegel offered his employees a raise. "I’m going to work my hardest to keep the company going and expand the best I can," Siegel said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.
As for "The Queen of Versailles," last month it was nominated for an International Documentary Association Award for Best Documentary. The winner will be announced Dec. 7. Its nomination could build buzz for an Oscar nod.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.