I finally got around to watching The Queen of Versailles this weekend. The documentary, from Lauren Greenfield, follows David and Jackie Siegel as they attempt to build the largest home in America. David is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share company in the world; an all-around curmudgeonly billionaire. Jackie, mother of seven, is a former Miss Florida from working class roots that started at IBM as an engineer but soon turned to modeling before meeting David at a party in Orlando.
Versailles is ostensibly a story of conspicuous consumption, the type that’s been enjoyable to watch in some form or another since Robin Leache’s trademark “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” Everyone marvels at the cars, the in-sourced help, the pooches and non-traditional pets (at one point they show pictures of a personal white tiger), the wanton disregard for how much it costs to get what they want in the facsimile of Louis the Fourteenth’s grand vision. At least that may have been the original intent. The financial crisis of September 2008 happened when Greenfield was filming; a proverbial tidal wave of WTF that changed many folk’s lives, including the Siegels. Thus the story became something slightly different — though not, necessarily, as David characterizes a “rags to riches to rags” narrative. The time-share titan doesn’t fall, but he’s knocked down a few pegs — perhaps enough to seem like a fall from grace to his profit-driven mind.
First, though, if you’re not familiar with the time-share world the business model depends on cheap credit. Targeting what David describes as Wal-Mart folks, Westgate sell rights to time at one of their properties. You may have participated in such sales pitches, where they promise you a gift (in the case of Westgate it’s often Disney tickets) in return for giving them a few hours to convince you to buy. In the film it’s described as an appeal to greed — people are enticed with seemingly low-hanging valuable fruit and it’s the high-stakes job of pitchmen and women to extract rents from such sin. These rights usually require a hefty downpayment and the rest is paid much like a traditional mortgage. The company then borrows from the bank against that mortgage at a much reduced rate from what they demand from their customers. It’s a profitable model when lenders are willing to dole out the loans; not so much when credit markets are tight or frozen. At one point David derides the bankers for making poor decisions, maybe not understanding that his own success was borne on the backs of securitized loans from subprime customers based on the false assumption of an ever-growing future.
When those customers mirrored the rest of the economy by ceasing payments on their time-share loans Westgate’s situation became especially dire. That monthly cash flow was payroll for thousands of employees. For David there were no savings, per se, for the company, as unused capital was unproductive capital. Everything was tied up in the byzantine structure of multiple credit lines and properties in areas hit hardest during the recession. In Versailles we watch as the company credit lines dry up, sending the geriatric CEO on an international quest for money and investors. But there was no easy money for anyone past that point; eliciting a bitter remark from Jackie that TARP funds should have found their way into Westgate’s pocket. Rather quickly the company’s staff is drastically reduced and David becomes effectively yolked to the whims of lenders that had made the whole operation possible. Their “one for the history books” homebuilding is disrupted as the house is put on the market. The initial price is far outside the reach of any realistic potential buyer, in spite of the bankers insistence that the couple take a massive loss on their palatial dreams. Eventually the home is put into a foreclosure process that isn’t resolved one or another in the movie. The private jet is sold, forcing Jackie and the kids to fly coach on a trip to visit her hometown. The mother recalls one her children asking “Why are all these people on our plane?” A short sequence later, if every there was a clear example of class consciousness, pay attention to the rental car clerk’s face when Jackie asks him the name of her driver. It’s priceless.
Yet the titans don’t fall, ultimately. This isn’t an occasion to over-quote “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” Rather, we witness the Siegels confront their newfound limitations with varying levels of dismay and the stubbornness that comes from not wanting to downsize their ambitions. David is increasingly ensconced within a small room in their mansion; on camera we often see the back of his head, sitting on the only open spot of a couch piled high with binders and papers in front of rather mundane television set. He’s bitter for the way things have worked out, at one point telling an interviewer that his marriage doesn’t make him happy. As Versailles segues to the last few minutes it ends where it began, on Jackie and the still-stalled vanity project of a 90,000 square foot mansion. The viewer sympathy of Jackie is presupposed, as she confesses ignorance to the house being in foreclosure. She’s somewhat frustrated that her husband borrowed against the value of the land and house. David, for his part, is introspective; if he had to do it all over again he’d have fewer resorts, etc, but “No one is without guilt. I’m the same way” for getting used to cheap money. As the film fades out we’re left with the former model’s exhultations of love for David — till death due us part and all that jazz — and the humility of resigning yourself to the possibility of settling for a smaller mansion on a private isle.
There are many aspects of Versailles related to my interests; maybe the part where David boasts of having gotten George W. Bush elected, the details of which cannot be disclosed because he isn’t entirely sure it was legal, would be appropriate. Or perhaps, as Ezra Klein did, one could draw a larger connection with The Great Recession. I’m sure there’s a blog post’s worth of Thorstein Veblen commentary.
Yet it’s difficult to reconcile my emotions on the subject matter of the film. The simple impression that, despite their great wealth, the Siegels are still human like the rest of us —human faults, making mistakes and paying (slightly different) prices. I sort of already knew that; around the time this was filmed I was living in Orlando. My job took me inside many wealthy homes, some in the same exclusive community in which the Siegels resided. I watched much of the movie as that person, in a blue-collar job, passively serving my role as the rented help. Disheveled rooms and copious amounts of carpet-landmines from expensive dogs are not uncommon. The garage full of vanity vehicles, more often than not covered in month’s worth of dust, is par for the course. These are the things we expect to find. A ‘just like the rest of us, but different’ theme is true so much as it goes, but it’s also just as obviously useless as an object lesson. The differences matter more than the similarities.
I grew up in a more egalitarian environment much lower on the income scale. Some had more than others, and the gaps are somewhat emphasized, but in the end we all rooted for the same high-school football team. For the Siegles enrolling their sons in little-league baseball is a way to get in touch with the common people, but in my hometown the solidarity is more real (for whatever that’s worth). It wasn’t until I moved to Orlando that class distinctions became a rule rather than the exception. I’ve never felt so small as when a customer in a penthouse suite forced me to leave because there wasn’t an available chaperone from building management to make sure I didn’t steal anything. My unaccompanied presence was an affront to the social chasm that income disparity had created — for her, wealth was not a thing that showed up in Excel sheets but an inviolable law of social physics. I imagine the queen of a failed Versailles would have been more polite, but I’ll never confuse such manners as anything more than so much sociable veneer. People like the Siegels really do play by different rules, in more ways than one, and that divide will always be more meaningful to me than whatever generic fallibilities we share.