Unquestionably the best nonfiction film of 2012, Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” is both the quintessential documentary about the Great Recession, and quite possibly the most Schadenfreude-filled movie of all time.
The film started out as a look at the quest by David Siegel, the nation’s most successful timeshare mogul, and his wife Jackie to upgrade from their already gargantuan mansion to newly constructed castle, which would have been the largest private residence in the United States.
I say “would have been” because during the production, the gods of documentary filmmaking smiled on Greenfield: the subprime mortage crisis of 2008 struck, draining Siegel’s access to capital. This forced his company to shed assets quickly, imperiling both its Las Vegas flagship and Siegel’s own under-construction dream house in Orlando. Because who wouldn’t want to pony up $70 million for a half-constructed uber-mansion, in the depths of the worst recession of all time?
We track the Siegels from the top of the world to their version of the bottom, with these former high rollers forced to shop at Walmart and lay off most of their domestic staff, making their home- filled with eight kids and many, many pets- resemble Grey Gardens, only with more dog feces.
Jackie, who’s essentially the protagonist, first comes across as a vacuous Real Housewives type, with cartoonish breast implants and an ever-present purse dog, who despite being from upstate New York has a speaking voice nearly identical to that of Michele Bachmann. But the more we get to know this former engineer and Mrs. Florida, the more she comes across as multifaceted and sympathetic. Her husband, on the other hand…
David Siegel, introduced SITTING ON A GOLD THRONE, is one of those real people who if he were a fictional character, you wouldn’t believe he could possibly be that evil. He claims “sole credit” for the election of George W. Bush, although he later bemoans that whole Iraq thing. You know who else probably bemoaned Dubya, while sitting on a gold throne? Saddam Hussein.
The throne disappears about halfway through the film; I was disappointed that we don’t find out what happened to it. Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume Donald Trump snapped it up in an asset auction.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to sit through one of their presentations, you know the timeshare business is one of the scuzzier, more unscrupulous industries there is, built largely upon pressuring and/or scamming people into buying properties they can’t afford. But it’s a family tradition: Siegel one point tells a story about how his parents used to blow all their money in Vegas, and later insists the similar snookering of his own customers is his business model.
Sure, it’s satisfying to see these people get their comeuppance. But it’s sad to see their kids suffer along with them, not to mention their employees. But overall, it’s absolutely captivating.
You may have seen Siegel in the news more recently, vowing to fire large numbers of employees in the event of an Obama re-election. Yes, that’s right- he still has a company, and he claims it’s doing pretty well.
To paraphrase Lewis Black, I don’t know how Siegel’s employees can watch this movie, and not rise up as one and slay him.