July 17, 2012

Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, which opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival and earned the U.S. Directing Award for documentary film, tells the story of David Siegel, a real estate mogul dubbed ‘The Time-Share King” by the media, and his wife, Jackie, a former engineering student who was crowned Miss Florida in 1993. It also tells the story of wealth, classism, and excess in America in the wake of the subprime-mortgage crisis. David’s involvement in the time-share business, a specific brand of mortgage gambling that only succeeds if banks have money to lend, granted them a life of unparalleled opulence, which peaked with the creation of the family’s 90,000-square-foot mansion—10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a bowling alley, and a health spa—modeled after the Palace of Versailles. With the housing market crash of 2008, the banks quit lending to the Siegels’ premier time-share property, PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas, forcing it into a state of crisis and foreclosure. As we watch the Siegels’ seemingly bottomless wealth dissipate, the emotional repercussions unfold with the swiftness and pitilessness of a Greek tragedy. We’re left with a complex moral about, in the words of Lauren Greenfield, “what is given and what is taken away”—and what, if anything, is deserved in American life.

Watching the film made me think about the passage in the Bible that says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Wealth used to be thought of as immoral.
And now it’s the opposite. I’ve been working on a book about wealth for the past 10 years. I come from Los Angeles, where class is uniquely defined by money. My first project after college was a photo essay on the French aristocracy, photographing families who didn’t have any money and yet were able to stay in this contained class. Jackie and David’s story is the polar opposite. They were up-by-your-bootstraps people who made their own way in the world. I think it prepared them for the loss that befell them. They were never defined by money.

Money, however, is the very thing that defines most audiences, especially in New York. During the film, we laugh at a real estate agent’s mispronunciation of “Versailles” and the tacky, Walmart opulence of the Siegel mansion. Our response raises the question: Are we classist?

The Siegels are, at times, inadvertently hilarious. Did you worry that we might be laughing at them and not with them?
When I started making the movie, it was more comedic. When everything started falling apart, the thing I got to work with was this narrative arc in their characters and in their story where you kind of start out thinking, “Who are these people? Why would people have these ambitions?” You end up not just empathizing with them but also seeing yourself in them. The film is about our cultural values and what overreaching means in America, and the recalibration that comes after, the looking back and seeing where we might have done things differently. The country started on an amazing ride—the boom! Then we ended up with foreclosed homes and green pools and brown lawns, wondering, “How could we have thought that somebody without a job could have a loan?” That’s the journey I want people to go on. I want them to start out fascinated by, and somewhat envious of, David and Jackie, in the same way that the characters on reality television repulse us.

The Siegel household includes countless animals, live-in help (who steadily dwindle as the Siegels come into hardship), Jackie and David’s seven children, and Jackie’s niece, Jonquil, who was taken in by them to escape a tumultuous and financially unstable home life.

Jonquil is very much the Nick Carraway of the film. She’s experiencing firsthand privilege, but she also knows the other side of things.
You can also see Jackie’s story through her. Jackie made this transition from lower middle class to rich over a span of many years, and Jonquil made that transition overnight. In a way, she’s a case study for how that transition worked out. By the end—even though she says at the beginning that she doesn’t want money to change her—Jonquil admits that once you have everything you kind of get used to it, and it’s not that exciting anymore. It does change you.

For a good quarter of the film, the Siegels get along just fine, despite the increasingly obvious corruption that plagues David’s time-share properties. At one point, David, having boasted that he “got Bush into the White House,” admits, “I can’t tell you how, because I’m not sure it’s legal.” A scene at his Vegas time-share building, a gigantic property whose expensive upkeep is the initial cause of David’s downfall, shows David’s employees getting a pep talk by his oldest son, who encourages them to get people to buy “at least something,” with the understanding that “vacations are healthy.”

When we got to see the pep talk at the Vegas property, it does feel a bit corrupt.
It represents most sales in America. That’s what capitalism is based on. That’s what happened in the housing market—people were sold things they couldn’t afford, and the first people who went down were those who had these terrible loans that they shouldn’t have had. And who’s to blame? Was it the mortgage brokers? Was it the banks? Was it the investors in the public companies? David really sums it up at the end when he says, “It’s a vicious cycle, and we were all a part of it.” He acknowledges that greed and the need to go bigger and better was really at the root of it. The thing about David’s relationship with the bank is that he’s both banker and borrower. He’s selling people this dream of luxury and this time-share that maybe they can’t afford, and then he’s also borrowing huge sums of money from the lenders, and it all works as long as there’s cheap financing. As soon as there’s not cheap financing, none of it works—it all comes to a halt. That’s the story of the subprime crisis. He is both a victim and a perpetrator. In a way, none of us can say we weren’t complicit in that because everybody benefited from the values of their homes going up so much, and borrowing on them, using their homes as piggy banks for whatever they wanted, and now it’s a kind of recalibration.

But the crisis also had so much to do with the political administration. David’s endorsement of Bush becomes ironic, because the economy probably wouldn’t have crashed like it did without the Bush administration and the war that came out of it.
David would blame the current administration. More important to me, however, was the connection between money and politics, and David would agree. By the end of the film, he was no longer involved in politics because it’s not really much fun—there’s not a lot you can do—without money.

Greenfield didn’t edit out the Siegels’ direct addresses to her in the film. Near the end, we hear David tell her that it’s time to “wrap it up.” 

Why did you decide to leave in David’s directions to you at the end?
People have asked me, “Why would they do this film?” I spent huge amounts of time with them over a three-year period, and they were very much a part of the process. David really opened up in the interviews and Jackie, even though she’s somebody who cares about her beauty and how she looks, allowed us to film her getting Botox and looking swollen. In the beginning, she would always put together her hair and makeup before we started filming, but in that last scene she has no makeup on and she has bare feet. When things started to get really tough with the Vegas property, he finally said, “Okay, we don’t need to dwell on this anymore. Let’s wrap it up.”

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