People in the Palace

In the quirky documentary 'Queen of Versailles,' the wealthy subjects are surprisingly sympathetic

In February 2007, the Orlando Business Journal published an article about time-share mogul David Siegel, who was touting a new construction project in central Florida. The article, headlined "Siegel on a tear with time-share expansions," discussed in great detail Siegel's track record and included a forecast that was just as bright: "Industry experts predict success for Siegel's latest ventures."

Less than two years later, it all came tumbling down.

Siegel, the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately held time-share company in the world, laid off thousands of employees, lost a big gamble with PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas, and never had the money to finish his dream home. His 90,000-square-foot palace was bigger than the White House and was oh-so-humbly named Versailles. The unfinished master bedroom covered 6,000 square feet alone.

Photographer Lauren Greenfield met Siegel's wife, Jacqueline, at the beginning of the process and decided to turn the construction of their home into a movie, but the economic tumult led Greenfield down several unexpected roads. The result was The Queen of Versailles.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how difficult it is to hate David and Jackie. Despite their wealth, even after the downturn, they both come across as more down-to-earth than you might expect. David, who achieved wealth after the age of 40, works all day, every day, and he was genuine in making concessions as the walls closed in on his business, unlike, say, a bank CEO.

Jackie Siegel, as materialistic as she is, also makes adjustments you might not expect at first blush. She opens a thrift store to sell her family's belongings and even gives a portion of the proceeds back to the Orlando community. She sends a high school classmate a sizable check to save the classmate's home from foreclosure. The one shopping spree shown in the film is for her seven kids at Christmas. And she shops at Walmart.

Those things don't make the Siegels saints, but because they do not behave as though they're entitled to the wealth they're losing, and their focus is on trying to save what they can, they do become more-relatable people. David is certainly more relatable. He does not jet to Aruba to avoid taking the next hit head-on; he sits shirtless in his TV room, surrounded by stacks of contracts and other paperwork, eating his home-cooked meal from a TV tray.

Jackie, however, is kind of a cartoon character. A model in her glory days, the 40ish blonde now gets the occasional Botox treatment, wears garish animal prints, and is preceded into every room by her dramatically augmented breasts. But underneath all of that, you still see a middle-class girl from Binghamton, N.Y., who just wanted something more.

While Greenfield insists that she still has a supportive relationship with Jackie, she and the film's producers are now being sued by David, who claims that The Queen of Versailles presents his company "in an array of defamatory, derogatory and damaging ways." For most filmmakers, that kind of reaction would be a feather in their cap, but time will tell whether it's a badge of honor or not.

A quirky documentary that manages to maneuver comedy and poignancy into a pristine example of the crushing excesses of the George W. Bush years, The Queen of Versailles stays away from demonizing anyone. It probably wouldn't have worked out so well if Greenfield had gone for the jugular, either.

As for Versailles, it's still unfinished. But with David Siegel's business booming again, he plans to complete construction and sell it. For the low, low price of $100 million.

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