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In New Documentary, Our Economic Fall Writ Large

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 20, 2012 8:39 pm

The Queen of Versailles is a movie about a couple who set out to build a colossal 90,000-square-foot home — the biggest in America — inspired by the palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In another time, this might have been the premise for a fictional film — a fable about hubris and material excess. But in our time, The Queen of Versailles is actually a documentary about the real life of David and Jackie Siegel of Orlando, Fla.

David Siegel made a fortune in the time-share business. When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield first met Jackie in 2007, she and her husband were at the top of the world.

But by the time Greenfield finished her film, the housing bubble had burst, the economy was struggling and the luxury — and regal ambitions — that the Siegels once knew had come undone.

Greenfield spoke to NPR's Robert Siegel — who's no relation — about her film, the Siegels and what it all says about the economic crisis in America.


Interview Highlights

On the Siegels' fall

"In the beginning [the Siegels are] building this house. The whole time-share business was based on cheap financing. And as they expand and expand, and ultimately build the tallest time-share building in Las Vegas, then the crisis starts to affect them. And as the cheap financing stopped being plentiful, they couldn't maintain the properties. And so their story becomes an allegory about the overreaching of America."

On the Siegels' overextended ambitions

"The thing about [the Siegels] story is that it's so supersized that it's kind of unbelievable. But on the other hand, it's real. I mean, I certainly wouldn't want to have a 26,000-square-foot house [which the Siegels lived in prior to building their record-breaking mansion] without many, many housekeepers. I think you see in a way how unrealistic this structure was, and how the center can't hold without all the assumptions that we had. You know, David's business had been growing for the last 30 years, and he never dreamed that it would stop growing. There was a wake-up call that, in a way, we all had when the bubble burst."

On the time-share business

"It was amazing to get to see behind the scenes of the sales room. And I think the really interesting thing about time share, and the selling of time share, is that it speaks to the aspirational luxury that in a way was behind the housing boom and bust. What you see in the story is that time share is a way for middle-class people and lower-income people to buy a second home that they can't really afford, and have a piece of this luxury."

On David Siegel's charge of negative portrayal

[Siegel sued Greenfield for defamation. He claimed that not enough of his and Jackie's charitable works are shown in the film.]

"I think he made that comment about the charitable works before he saw the film, actually. And I think you do see in the film that he raises money for his favorite charity, which is Miss America. I think what happens with Jackie's character is you see her generosity of heart. That comes out more and more as she deals with the adversity. You see her open a thrift shop to help the Westgate [David's time-share company] employees who have been laid off. You see her lend money to her friend who is about to lose her house. But I think David would have preferred that I continued much longer with the film and saw the Westgate company come back, and saw him regain success in the end."

On the change in the film's premise

"That was one of the really fascinating parts of this process. When we started, it was about [the Siegels'] success and their building the biggest house in America — and really that being the ultimate expression of the American dream. And in the beginning, [the movie] starts out as this intimate look at how the 1 percent live, and what wealth is like; it's almost like a fantasy world with castles and jets and a time-share king and a beauty queen.

"By the end, you really see that it's become an allegory about all of us, and in a way the overreaching of America and how we all overextended in different ways: taking out too much money from our houses, using our houses as piggy banks, building too big. And these are people that you thought would never be affected by the recession or the crash because they had so much padding and so much wealth. In a way, this kind of happened to all of us, and that's really what I want people to get from their story."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.