Americana, Boom and Bust

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Making a documentary is a lot like planting a seed you find in the yard; you don't know what you're going to get until after you start filming. When director Lauren Greenfield began filming The Queen of Versailles, real estate was at its height as an investment, and timeshare mogul David Siegel was a billionaire. He and his engineer turned model turned beauty queen turned trophy wife Jackie were building the largest private home in America: 90,000 square feet, 30 bathrooms, two sweeping formal staircases leading to the pillared ballroom, and more bedrooms than Jackie could count.

What could anyone possibly need with 90,000 square feet of house, you might well ask. Well, you have to put the kids' ice skating rink somewhere, right? And maybe someday they'll even take up skating . . . That was the story Greenfield expected to tell. It isn’t quite the story that she ended up with.

At the start, the Siegels were on top of the world as they posed for photographs and preened for their interviews. Siegel’s Westgate Resorts was the largest timeshare company in the world, and its showcase resort in Las Vegas was eclipsing all the hotels on the Strip. Donald Trump complained that he couldn't sleep at night because the Westgate logo shone into his penthouse at the Trump Hotel. David and Jackie both came from humble beginnings, and both were proud of the lifestyle they had come to enjoy: a world full of chauffeured limousines, private jets, celebrity parties, and an overabundance of stuff.

But having "stuff" is not the same as having class. The Siegels’ dream home was patterned (sort of) after Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, but there is nothing regal or even noble about the Siegels themselves. Let's face it: anyone who lives with dog poop on the carpets or takes the limousine to McDonald's is trashy, not classy. Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

The Siegels seem like nice enough people, but I have friends who live in a trailer park who have more class than they do. The film provides a revealing look at this family of ordinary people living in an extraordinary home with unseemly amounts of money to blow on themselves. It's funny, it's shocking, it's sad — and it's fascinating.

A timeshare provides a way of selling the same property 52 times. The purchasers buy one week at a resort and can use that week every year for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives for that matter, as long as the timeshare resort is still operating (which can become a bit iffy). If you get tired of vacationing in that spot, you can trade your week for a timeshare at a resort in another location. On the surface it seems attractive: timeshare resorts are generally nicer and more personal than motels, and it seems like it will save money to own a vacation place rather than rent a room at a hotel. But the purchasers still have to pay "maintenance fees" when they use the timeshares, as well as monthly mortgage payments, since most people just put 10% down when they buy. These "free" vacations get pretty expensive.

Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

So how did the Siegels sell all those timeshares? You can't cheat an honest man, but you can sucker a greedy one. Timeshare operators bait their hooks with the promise of free stuff: free Disney tickets, free Vegas shows, free dinners, free hotel rooms. Like the little fish who thinks he can nibble around the bait and avoid the hook, these potential clients arrive at the timeshare table thinking — knowing! — that they will just spend three hours listening to a spiel in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of goods. No way are they going to buy anything. But the timeshare sharks know exactly what kind of bait to use for the fish they have in the tank: the ones who feed on “good deals.” So that's how they position their sales marketing — as a very good deal. Taking advantage of the sellers, almost. Very few couples emerge from a timeshare office without a contract — and a mortgage — for a lifetime of vacations.

Of course, the sales reps don't want to think of themselves as predatory sharks. So Siegel gives them a different spiel. He baits them with statistics showing how going on family vacations regularly saves lives and marriages. He conveniently ignores statistics showing that consumer debt strangles families and destroys the same lives and marriages. The thing is, Siegel seems to believe his own statistics, citing the thousands of people who earn a living because of his empire. One would expect him to have contempt for the people he suckers, but he seems genuinely to believe himself when he insists, "I save lives." If he's a shark, he has convinced himself that he is a nurse shark, dosing his patients with the healing balm of a week in Las Vegas or Orlando every year.

Then — with unforeseen effects on the documentary — came the fall of 2008, and with it the fall of the economy in general and of real estate in particular. Suddenly the easy money that Siegel's company had relied on dried up. Without mortgages, new clients could not purchase the timeshares. His existing clients could not keep up with their own mortgage payments. His employees went from the sales table to the collections department. It was not a happy time for anyone at the company, and it shows on their faces as they call clients to ask for payments.

The Siegels got caught in the same overextended net, and found themselves unable to keep up with their own mortgage payments. At the height of his success, David employed 6,000 people (19 of whom were maintaining his house and nannying his children). He needed a constant stream of sales to service all those salaries. But when mortgage money dried up, so did sales. In the post-2008 interviews, he is pensive and withdrawn, no longer the gregarious host. "I never took anything off the table," he recalls. "I put it all into the business."

Even more damning is his admission about the lake property that he and his wife once owned free and clear in pricey Isleworth, an exclusive community in Orlando with the likes of Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors. "I paid cash to build our house," he laments, referring to the 26,000-square-foot house where they lived while Versailles was being built. "Then I borrowed against it to expand the business." Siegel did not erect a legal wall between his company and his personal holdings, as wise business owners do. He foolishly did not realize that the house you live in is not an investment. It is a consumer item. A home.

Soon Siegel needs $400 million to save his Las Vegas resort and $100 million to save the unfinished dream home, Versailles. Jackie starts cutting corners by doing her Christmas shopping at Walmart and letting all but two of the domestic staff go. "If I'd known I was going to have to raise them myself, I wouldn't have had seven children," she says, only half in jest, while cooking a dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. She continues to be a compulsive collector of stuff, but it's mostly cheap stuff. She buys three separate "Operation" games for her kids and gives David "Monopoly" and "Risk" for Christmas. (Odd gifts, when you think about it.)

Meanwhile David blows a gasket and refuses to come to dinner when the front door is left open and the lights are left on; "Don't you people care how much electricity costs?" he complains. But the truth is, Jackie's overspending hasn't caused their financial mess; David's overborrowing has. She might have wasted a million, but he has lost half a billion. Jackie repeatedly says that stress is bringing them closer as a couple, but when David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

Eventually the bank offers the Siegels a way out: let the Las Vegas resort go, so the company will have enough money to keep operating the rest of its holdings, including the house. But David isn’t willing to give up his $400 million in sunk costs, and he is determined not to let the creditors have the crown jewel of his empire. He's stubborn. Or maybe he just believes in fairy dust. At any rate, he seems a broken man. "Aren't we finished with this yet?" he asks the filmmaker. "We're done. I'm done," he declares softly. It's hard to tell whether he means the film, his business, his family, or himself.

When David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

The Siegels do not appear in what is probably the most revealing and poignant scene of the film. The Filipina nanny invites the camera into "her" house. It is the children's elegant abandoned playhouse, and she has been given permission to use it as her own hideaway. Furnished with a bed, a dresser, and her personal trinkets, it is the place she goes to be alone and enjoy the quiet. In this film about building the largest single-family home in America, she talks about her simple goal: to provide a house for her father. "Owning a concrete house is so important to people in the Philippines," she explains. She has left her own children behind in the Philippines to raise someone else's children and earn money to send back home to her family. "I tried to give that to my father, but he never got his house. Now he's dead. He is in a tomb. I guess that is his concrete house now," she says with a sigh and a tear of resignation.

The juxtaposition of this nanny's simple dream and the dream house of the self-proclaimed queen of Versailles is simple and powerful. The rise and fall of the Westgate timeshare empire is fascinating. The entire film is funny, sad, and revealing. It's an outstanding documentary, one that Greenfield could scarcely have dreamed of when she started making it. Her creation turned out to be the real “Versailles.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Queen of Versailles," directed by Lauren Greenfield. Evergreen Pictures, 2012, 100 minutes.



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