Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Queen of Versailles: Let them eat McNuggets

The 2008 global recession affected a lot of people in a variety of different ways, but one of the more intriguing "riches to rags" stories revolves around time-share king David Siegel and his former beauty queen wife, Mrs. Florida 1993 Jackie Siegel.

And director Lauren Greenfield tells the tale in a very entertaining way in The Queen of Versailles, a 100-minute film shot over three years that had three screenings at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival last week.

Siegel became a billionaire as the founder, chief executive officer and sole owner of the biggest private time-share company in the world, Westgate Resorts. Convinced that their 26,000-square-foot Florida mansion isn't big enough for them, their eight children, numerous servants, a menagerie of pets (and a few stuffed dead ones), the Siegels designed and started building the largest house in the United States based on the Versailles palace outside of Paris that housed French royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Plans for the 90,000-square-foot lakefront home on 10 acres near Orlando, Fla. include: a ballroom that can accommodate 500 people; a wine cellar with room for tastings and 20,000 bottles; a giant aquarium made by the folks behind Sea World; 13 bedrooms; a couple dozen bathrooms; 11 kitchens; a separate wing for the children; a stage; two movie theatres; a two-lane bowling alley; a video arcade; a roller-skating rink; an indoor pool; a fitness centre; a spa; staff quarters; a half-acre deck with three pools, a waterfall and a rock grotto; a boathouse; a guardhouse; a sandy beach; a formal garden; a full-size baseball field that doubles as a parking lot; and two tennis courts, one with stadium seating.

Yes, it's ridiculous.

Siegel seems to be on top of the world as he keeps opening more resorts through the first part of the 21st century, including his crown jewel in Las Vegas. He even takes credit for getting George W. Bush elected president in 2004, but won't divulge details because it may or may not have been done legally.

When the global financial crisis hits, however, credit dries up for both Westgate and the customers who were buying vacation time at its properties with money they often didn't have. Construction halts on Versailles when it's only half-finished, Westgate is forced to lay off thousands of employees as all of its non-core assets are put up for auction and sell for much less than market value. Bankers order Siegel to sell Versailles for $15 million after he's already sunk $75 million into it, and the 52-storey Planet Hollywood Towers by Westgate property in Vegas may be pushed into foreclosure.

The Siegels lay off 19 staff members from their "modest" existing house, leaving them with four nannies, a housekeeper, dog poop everywhere and a starved to death lizard that one son didn't know they owned. Jackie, who'd become accustomed to spending $1 million a year on personal shopping, is still a compulsive spender -- but her sprees are now at Wal-Mart and McDonald's as the family tries to cut back and save money.

David, 76, tells Greenfield that his marriage to Jackie, 46, is like having another child. He keeps her in the dark about Versailles going into foreclosure and the magnitude of Westgate's financial woes to the point where she says, "I'll have to watch the movie to find out what's going on in my life."

David grows distant from Jackie as he locks himself away to try and figure out a way to get out of his hole and avoid declaring bankruptcy, and it's at this point where it becomes clear that Jackie is no gold-digger and that she deeply loves her husband.

Siegel was forced to sell the Vegas tower last November and one of the final scenes of The Queen of Versailles shows the lights going out on the Westgate logo. The company is now about half its former size, but is making about $125 million in profits annually and David claims he'll be totally out of debt in three years. And yes, the Siegels have hung on to Versailles and plan to finish it.

But while Jackie attended the world premiere screening of The Queen of Versailles at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and signed autographs afterward, David has called the documentary a terrible portrayal of the family even though he hasn't seen it yet.

The Queen of Versailles is a film that should be seen. It's enjoyable viewing and for those with less than a firm grasp on economics, you can also consider it a Dummy's Guide to the Perils of Debt Financing.

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