The Queen of Versailles

Telegraph Magazine, Apr 2012

You’re a billionaire building your take on Versailles (complete with 30 bathrooms and parking for 20 cars) when the recession hits. What do you do? Why, allow a film-maker to record every single aspect of your fall from grace.


(Photograph by Lauren Greenfield)

(Also read at The Telegraph)

It has a nice ring, that Wallis Simpson line, ‘No woman can be too rich or too thin.’

But the award-winning photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield would beg to differ.

In her documentary Thin (2006), she revealed the desperate agonies of anorexic women. Then came Kids + Money (2008), which exposed the pernicious money culture among high-school teenagers in Los Angeles.

And now, in The Queen of Versailles – for which she won best documentary director at the Sundance Film Festival in January – she introduces us to Jackie Siegel.

Siegel is a delightfully unfiltered ex-model and billionaire’s wife, whose plans to build the largest family home in America (modelled on the palace of Versailles) go awry after the credit crunch of 2008.

What begins as a lurid and often comical exposé of unseemly excess morphs into an oddly sympathetic parable about wealth, greed and the American dream.

‘There was a certain amount of serendipity in the way it started,’ says Greenfield of the film. ‘I was shooting Donatella Versace for Elle, and she had flown her best customers to the opening of her Beverly Hills store. Jackie was one of them.

‘She is larger than life, even in the way she looks – she’s very tall and beautiful. She showed me this picture of her and her eight kids out on the wing of their Gulfstream jet and I said, “Oh, some time I have to come out and photograph you.”’

This was February 2007, when the Siegels were living in a 26,000 sq ft mansion in Orlando, Florida – just Jackie, 43, her husband, David, 74, their eight children (one adopted), 19 staff, four dogs, five cats and sundry peacocks, chinchillas and more.

But this was a mere pied à terre while they built their dream home down the road: A 90,000sq ft palace with three swimming pools, 10 kitchens, a 20-car garage, 30 bathrooms, a 7,200sq ft ballroom to seat 500, a two-storey wine cellar, a bowling alley and a full-sized baseball pitch. It would be modelled on Versailles, only through a gaudy, Las Vegas lens. David Siegel, who grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Indianapolis, loves Las Vegas.

As the self-described ‘timeshare king’ and chief executive of Westgate Resorts, he was building the tallest timeshare holiday tower in the city, to be unveiled in 2009. ‘It had ‘the brightest sign on the [Las Vegas] Strip’, he says proudly in the film. When Greenfield pitched her project – a film about building ‘Versailles’ – the Siegels loved the idea.

They’re far from camera-shy: their walls are full of their photographs, some with George W Bush (whom David claims to have helped win Florida in 2000), Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. And they were uncommonly candid.

‘There’s often a protective veil that comes with wealth or celebrity,’ says Greenfield. ‘They don’t have that. Jackie is really unpretentious and open. Because they both come from humble origins they just have this really down-to-earth quality.’

Down-to-earth isn’t necessarily the first impression one gets of the Siegels. Jackie, who was previously briefly involved with Donald Trump, freely admits to spending $1 million (£630,000) a year on clothes, shoes and jewellery. She travels everywhere by limousine, even to McDonald’s, and, as David joked in a recent interview, despite ‘seven kids, neither of us ever changed a diaper’.

However, the focus of the documentary changed when the stock market crashed in 2008, and the building of the mansion stopped. The house was put on the market at $75 million (£47 million). The timeshare tower in Vegas was shut down and hundreds of workers laid off. In the Siegel household 15 staff were let go, the children were taken out of their private school and the family grounded its private jet.

At one point in the documentary Jackie declares that she’s bought a lottery ticket, and says, incredulously, ‘I told them [the children] they might have to go to college now. They might actually have to make their own money!’

The Siegels remain in their original mansion, but they bicker over electricity bills and go shopping at Walmart. We see David’s mounting irritation at his wife’s helpless spending.

‘It went from being a quirky story about this interesting family,’ says Greenfield, ‘to a much deeper allegory about the overreaching of America. You start to develop empathy for them in a way that you don’t expect.’

Certainly it’s easy to relate to David’s disdain or the banks. But, in many ways, he was the incarnation of everything that was wrong with the financial system before the crash: he borrowed too much and gave mortgages to people who couldn’t pay them back (Westgate’s chief financial officer recently put the customer default rate at 20 per cent).

And it’s hard to weep for a family in a 26,000sq ft home with four servants.

The pet lizard dies because the children simply forget to feed it. Meanwhile their Filipina maid, Virginia, cries because she hasn’t been able to go home and see her children for 19 years. (Virginia lives in the Siegel children’s former doll’s house.) And when Jackie’s impoverished childhood friend Tina is in danger of having her house repossessed, Jackie sends just $5,000 (£3,200) – less than a third of the $17,000 (£11,000) she once spent on a single pair of boots.

It’s not enough to save the house.

After the film’s première at Sundance, David Siegel sued Greenfield for defamation, saying that her portrayal of his lifestyle and fading business was ‘totally not true’. Greenfield can’t comment since the lawsuit is ongoing, but she stresses that she and Jackie remain close, noting that Jackie came to the première (in a leopard-print dress and red fox-fur coat).

And Greenfield is quick to sing the praises of the Siegels, describing them as generous and kind. Of the $5,000 gift, for instance, Greenfield says that was all that Jackie was asked for, and anyway this was after the crash, ‘so it wasn’t easy for her to do it’.

And yet we see Jackie tucking into a huge jar of caviar. She also goes on a shopping spree at Walmart, compulsively filling trolley after trolley with stuff she doesn’t need.

‘It’s addiction and it’s shopping,’ says Greenfield, ‘and these aren’t qualities that I admire, but they’re qualities that I have to admit that I share.’

She wants viewers to see themselves in the Siegels. And yet often we find them comical. When the man at Hertz has to tell Jackie that, no, her rental car doesn’t come with a driver, she’s someone to laugh at, not with – the dizzy billionaire’s wife, lost in her own world.

‘I see it differently,’ says Greenfield, rallying to her defence. ‘I think she’s kind of in on the joke. She totally knew what the film was about. She’s a very smart woman.’

For Greenfield, the Siegels are representative of our own values. ‘I went in asking, “What is the American dream? Why does success mean constantly going bigger and bigger?” And that was not unique to the Siegels, but part of our wider culture. Their dream was an extension of all of our dreams.’

Greenfield, who was born in Los Angeles, had just graduated in photography and film from Harvard – where she met her husband of 16 years, Frank Evers (a frequent producer on Greenfield’s films, and chief executive of Institute, a company that manages photographers) – when she was sent to photograph Mayans for National Geographic.

It was a tough shoot, not least because of the Mayan belief that taking a picture could take a man’s soul. While there, Greenfield read Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero, documenting the idle, nihilistic lifestyle of wealthy teenagers in Los Angeles. ‘And I thought, wait a minute, my culture is actually worthy of documentation. And that’s where I’ve lived ever since.’

Her work is distinguished by the intimacy of her access, and her apparent invisibility to her subjects. The first book, in 1997, was Fast Forward: Growing up in the Shadow of Hollywood, about the way celebrity culture affected high-school children in Los Angeles who were anxious to enter adulthood.

Her second, Girl Culture (2002), looked at the way that consumer culture affects girls’ body image, with the subsequent book and film, Thin, focusing on its most extreme aspects ‘The work has always had a sociological bent,’ she says.

With The Queen of Versailles she was drawn to the ways in which the Siegels resembled stars of The Real Housewives reality-television franchise – the busty, apparently trophy wife of a rich older man.

‘The challenge was: can I take this to a deeper place? That’s what I always try to do. In Girl Culture my photographs have very glossy surfaces and rich saturated colours, because I’m referencing magazine photography, and that kind of lush, editorial look. So with Queen of Versailles I want the viewers of The Real Housewives to see the movie and come out thinking, “Should we be obsessing over this lifestyle?”’

Her next project is a book about wealth, which took her from repossessed homes in California to the mega-rich of China. Just as Girl Culture explored how the body had become the primary vehicle of expression for girls, the boom drew Greenfield into ‘thinking about how our house had become the ultimate expression of our identity and our status.

‘Even for middle-class intellectuals who were reading architecture magazines, good design was an excuse for materialism in a way.’

The Siegels represent this same materialism taken to an extreme. It’s almost too perfect that David Siegel became wealthy selling timeshare, whose appeal, in his own words is, ‘If you can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich.’

As Greenfield sees it, ‘The Siegels are a larger-than-life example of what we all went through as a culture.’ Others may see a searing exposé of the greed of the super-rich.

But the Siegels themselves hope some will see it as a commercial – for luxury real estate.Because business is bouncing back, and their dream home is reportedly back under construction. David managed to rescue it from repossession and last month told The Wall Street Journal that it will be complete in about two years.

In case you’re interested, it’s yours for £57 million.