Hot Docs 2012: The Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield’s amusing and wonderfully timed film The Queen of Versailles started out as a photo essay on wealth. Greenfield met Jackie Siegel—a Real Housewife with a heart of gold—through fashion designer Donatella Versace. When Jackie told Greenfield her timeshare mogul husband David was building their own personal “Versailles” slated to be the biggest home in America, the photographer and filmmaker travelled to their home in Orlando, Florida.

When the financial crisis hit the Siegels, Greenfield's Versailles project eventually evolved into a study of an empire on the brink of collapse and ideal microcosm for the crisis in general. David Siegel initially paid outright for the early stages of their dream home, but later chose to capitalize on low mortgage rates—“cheap money”/low interest debt—and reinvest in his new company, PH Towers/Westgate in Las Vegas. A gamble, to be sure, but Siegel was raking it in. The new venture crumbles, partly due to banks' wariness of the sub-prime loans Westgate dealt out freely. The story then becomes an even more intimate and familiar tale of the institution of homeownership and the recent blight of foreclosures in the United States.

The Westgate business depended on the promise of “affordable luxury”, our taste for a little indulgence or a scrap of class mobility. According to David Siegel, most Americans believe the next best thing to being rich is being rich for a little while, and the timeshare philosophy at Westgate was to give these ordinary Americans—“$40-50,000 people” as his business partner and son Richard Siegel puts it—a taste of the good life. As Richard puts it, vacations save lives. His sales people are like doctors, nurses, and firefighters. Sell a timeshare, save a life. Give hardworking Americans a chance to get to know their children, escape their alienating jobs, and an isolating technology-driven culture.

Toward the end of the film David looks like he could use a vacation. Thousands of Westgate staff have been let go, offices sit abandoned, and their CEO’s pig-headedness has put the entire empire at risk. At first, the chaos is exhilarating. David slogs away, struggles, and squirms, aging before our eyes. Jackie changes less—she buys useless crap at Wal-Mart instead of Gucci.

There’s a temptation to leave The Queen of Versailles satisfied that the Siegels got their just deserts. The film, like much of reality TV programming, makes us feel superior, more culturally in touch, more disciplined, or at the very least more self-aware than the hoarders and out of touch housewives we judge. There are many distasteful moments: the dog shit scattered throughout the household, the sheer abundance of nearly indistinguishable and essentially charmless children (the exception being Jackie’s eldest daughter Victoria), the displays of bad parenting, and gestures toward hoarding and compulsive behaviour. The film suggests David has unspoken hang-ups—his parents were big time Vegas gamblers, and he clings to the project with monomaniacal resolution, imprisoning himself in his home office for two years, making the outlandish claim he’ll cheat death itself if that’s what it takes to restore his company. It eerily feels like David is tempting fate with outlandish hubris—as if there’s a heart attack around the corner—but this is no Greek epic, this is corporate America. As Greenfield explained in the Q&A, after David finally abandoned the Vegas project, Westgate restructured their debt and stayed afloat. The company has survived. David has been “reined in” on a salary. There is no progress here, and mere disdain and derision for the filthy and foolish rich gets us nowhere.

None of this is clear in The Queen of Versailles—the film ends with the Westgate light going out in Vegas. Nonetheless, the film is full of snippets that amount to an unsettling remainder: a real estate agent with multiple properties is now a limo-driver in a rental home; the migrant workers raising the Siegel children to eventually save to go home to their own, now fully grown; Jackie’s childhood friend who loses her home to foreclosure despite not owning a credit card; and the 3000+ Westgate employees who lost their jobs. We never know whether or not they stay afloat, and they aren’t as easy as David Siegel to Google.

Through the question mark lingering over these stories, The Queen of Versailles is more complicated than our addiction to “cheap money” and luxury writ large in the stories of the obscenely rich. We are invited to reflect on the countless ways in which we faithfully borrow from the present to bet on a “promising” future return, whether we’re students taking out more loans, $20,000 people working overtime to pay for free time, $40,000 dollar people sacrificing a meaningful present for a spot of luxury, or billion dollar people recklessly going “all in” on new business ventures. The real lending problem seems to be this habit of gambling on a prosperous future, clinging to the American dream of development, in spite of a clearly unfair playing ground.

As David Siegel recites, “We have to learn to live within our means.” We know it, but it’s hard to know precisely what that means or whether it's possible in unprecedented times so thoroughly saturated with debt. Arguably, we have moved past the point where risk is measurable into uncharted, wildly uncertain territory. While some may have predicted the collapse of sup-prime mortgages, few were prepared for the full scope of its effects. Reality is always more complex than models. What kind of growth and development can we reliably bank on or plan for when the past is no longer a “reliable” indicator of what’s to come?

As Jackie puts it in the film, it’s easy to look stupid when your resources are limited, or, perhaps, when the scope of the problem is overwhelming (here’s a useful and entertaining breakdown of a part of the problem from the U.S. perspective). We can maybe blame Jackie for not working harder to things find out on her own, putting all of her trust in David. We can even scoff at David for putting all of his faith in low interest loans and the success of the Vegas enterprise. But there’s no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to consider The Queen of Versailles as something much more than an entertaining portrait of the “just deserts” of the gambling 1%, or a chance to titter with audience members at Floridians who pronounce the second “s” in Versailles. What we really cannot afford is another failure to understand how we might forge new models for progress in an increasingly unpredictable present. 

- Emily Hass


Find all of our coverage of Hot Docs 2012 here.


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