Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 7, 2013

Rags-to-riches documentary ends badly


— Some truly stellar documentaries have cast light recently on the global financial crisis that struck with devastation in 2008, such as the 2011 Academy Award winner "Inside Job" or the beautifully shot "Detropia."

I would add to that list Lauren Greenfield's jaw-dropping "The Queen of Versailles," described as a "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story.

If you find detailed economic analysis intimidating and interviews with talking heads dull, "The Queen of Versailles" might be for you. Think of it as "The Real Housewives of Economic Collapse."

Greenfield began the project intending to document the lives of Jackie and David Siegel as they build the largest family home -- dubbed Versailles -- in the United States. Where the story leads will leave you amused, surprised, sympathetic and even angry.

Self-made billionaire David Siegel is the founder and owner of Westgate Resorts. His much younger wife is a paradox; the former Mrs. Florida is fond of Botox, spray tans and plastic surgery, yet she's also a doting mother to eight children, loyal wife and former IBM computer engineer.

Despite her penchant for dropping $1 million a year on clothes, Jackie seems like a sweet, if somewhat clueless, person. She attends her son's Little League games and volunteers in the snack bar. She adopted her niece, who had been living in poverty and neglect.

While getting her hair done, she grabs her phone and hilariously orders a 50-piece McNugget from McDonalds, "with all the sauces." She even sends her childhood friend a check to save her home.

Her husband, on the other hand, comes across as an arrogant control freak, albeit an intelligent, hardworking one. He takes credit for personally getting George W. Bush elected, both times, and is prone to statements such as "I've changed a lot of people's lives. A lot of people are better off having known me."

When the U.S. stock market crashes in 2008, the Siegels' world of privilege crumbles.

Four months after the opening of the newly built Planet Hollywood Westgate Towers in Las Vegas, the company is sued for unpaid bills. The Siegels begin selling their assets to pay off the huge debt, cease construction on the 90,000 square-foot Versailles and put it up for sale. Eventually, the property goes into foreclosure.

At first the Siegels don't accept responsibility for their predicament.

Instead, the family blames the banks, which they claim forced them to stop sales and lay off 6,000 employees. Money lenders are likened to drug pushers; they offered cheap money, got people addicted, then withdrew the money. Jackie is baffled as to why the government bailout money, which she says was supposed to be passed along to the "common people. You know, us," hasn't trickled down to benefit them.

As the situation grows dire, David fights to save his company. Jackie, meanwhile, does what she can to live on a budget but is woefully out of touch. She lets most of the servants go but can't maintain her household. She shops at Wal-Mart for Christmas presents but gives out puppies and enjoys caviar on Christmas Day. She flies commercially to visit her hometown and tries to rent a car, but asks if a driver comes with the car. The clerk's reaction is priceless.

Ultimately, "The Queen of Versailles" is a familiar story, told on a grander scale. It is one of success and failure, personal responsibility, family and marriage. David himself finally understands the moral of this cautionary tale:

"We need to live within our means," he says. "Don't spent money that we don't have. Don't spend money that we think we're eventually gonna have. Spend what we do have. Get back to reality."


Lisa E. Brown is a columnist for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe and the the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.