NPR

In New Documentary, Our Economic Fall Writ Large

Jackie Siegel poses in The Queen of Versailles. She and her husband, David, were building the largest house in the U.S. before the recession soured their plans. (Magnolia Pictures)

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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From 'The Queen of Versailles' - 'The Biggest House'
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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

"The Queen of Versailles" is a movie about a couple who set out to build a colossal home for themselves 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 - no relation - of Orlando, Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES")

JACKIE SIEGEL: I said, well, I'd like to have a bowling alley. And then he says, I want a health spa. And then I said, we need maids' quarters. I forgot how many kitchens, 10 kitchens. We have a sushi bar.

DAVID SIEGEL: Two tennis courts, one will be a stadium court, full-sized baseball field which will double as the parking lot when we have parties.

SIEGEL: 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. When Greenfield finished her film, the housing bubble had burst, the economy was struggling and the luxury and regal ambitions that the Siegels had known had come undone.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: David was a billionaire and they were building the biggest house in America. He was on the Forbes list.

SIEGEL: And today?

GREENFIELD: And today, well, in the story what happened is in the beginning they're building this house. And then 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 to be plentiful, they couldn't maintain the properties. And so their story becomes an allegory about the overreaching of America.

SIEGEL: Jackie says something that's wonderful in its candor. She says, you know, if I hadn't been rich, I never would have had all these kids. If I didn't know about nannies, I wouldn't be able to have seven kids. This way I have them. They're wonderful. Somebody else takes care of them all the time. And as things come a little unstuck here, it's hard to tell if the kids or the many dogs and other pets in the household, who is less disciplined, less being looked after in this menagerie.

GREENFIELD: Well, I think what we see is that huge infrastructure that can't be maintained without all of the help, that nobody predicted this situation. You know, I think the thing about their story is that it's so supersized that, you know, it's kind of unbelievable. But on the other hand, it's real. And I mean, I certainly wouldn't want to have a 26,000-square-foot house without many, many housekeepers.

And I think you see in a way how unrealistic this structure was, and how kind of the center can't hold without all of the assumptions that we had. That, you know, David's business had been growing for the last 30 years, and he never dreamed that it would stop growing. And, you know, there was a wake-up call that, in a way, we all had when the bubble burst.

SIEGEL: And we should just point out the 26,000-square-foot house, that's the small house, that's not the Versailles that they were building, that's where they actually lived.

GREENFIELD: Right. The 26,000-square-foot house was the starter mansion that they were bursting in the seems, as Jackie says, and so were building the 90,000-square-foot house.

SIEGEL: One of my favorite scenes in your documentary, "The Queen of Versailles," shows Richard Siegel, who is David's adult son by a previous marriage. And David is 30 years older than his wife Jackie. Richard Siegel here is leading a meeting of sales personnel, people who sell time shares with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE NEW VERSAILLES")

RICHARD SIEGEL: Why are we here?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: To save lives.

SIEGEL: To save lives. And you thought you were just selling time sharing, didn't you? We sell vacations. Vacations are healthy for you. Do you believe that?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.

SIEGEL: I can show you the articles and the studies. Those who take the fewest amount of vacations are most likely to have a heart attack.

SIEGEL: And Richard Siegel goes on to say: We are like doctors, we are like firefighters selling more time shares. We're also saving marriages. What a great speech. What a glimpse of being a salesman, that is.

GREENFIELD: It was amazing to get to see the behind the scenes of the sales room. And I think the really interesting thing about time share for me and selling of time share is it speaks to the aspirational luxury that in a way was behind kind of the housing boom and bust. And 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 kind of have a piece of this luxury.

SIEGEL: I read that David Siegel was very displeased with the film in the end and sued or saying that you hadn't - you didn't represent the charitable works that they're engaged in. Were there virtues of the Siegels that you left on the editing room floor?

GREENFIELD: Well, 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. And she also - 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. And you see her open a thrift shop to help the Westgate employees who have been laid off.

SIEGEL: That's the time share company.

GREENFIELD: The time share company. And you see her lend money to her friend who was 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, you know, come back and saw him regain success in the end.

SIEGEL: There's an exchange very near the end of the film that when David Siegel says to you something to the effect of I think this has gone on long enough. Obviously the premise of this film had changed a great deal from the beginning when you started doing it.

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

And 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 kind of get from their story.

SIEGEL: Lauren Greenfield, thank you very much for talking with us today.

GREENFIELD: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Director Lauren Greenfield's documentary about David and Jackie Siegel is called "The Queen of Versailles."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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