If you’ve not yet seen the documentary film The Queen of Versailles then check it out as soon as possible through Netflix, your cable TV offerings, or your local video store. It’s a look at the fallen billionaire couple David and Jacqueline Siegel – a riches to rags tale (or rags in a relative sense at least) that will likely appall you, fascinate you, and occasionally make you laugh when you see the role that money plays in the lives of these two people and their children. Indeed, watching the film for the first time last week on DVD I was left thinking it’s a mistake to assume only middle to low wage earners can benefit from good credit counselling or sound financial coaching. If ever there was a couple in desperate need of personal money management skills and a financial reality check it is the free-spending, status-obsessed Mr. and Mrs. Siegel.
Call them parvenus, or nouveau riche, or simply a couple at odds with reality as they routinely try to live life large in the face of financial decline. The message here is that there are those among the wealthy who are in a manner of speaking richly poor and too clouded or proud to seek out reputable credit counselling for their debt problems.
The two are riding high as the film begins. In fact David and Jacqueline are in the process of building the biggest private residence in the United States, comprising some 90,000 square feet of space. The structure is designed to mirror – on a smaller but nonetheless grand scale – the magnificent Palace of Versailles in France (thus the inspiration for the film’s title in relation to the flamboyant Jacqueline). But soon into a story that spans a two-year period, the Siegels fall on difficult financial times and the palace goes unfinished. Their wealth – once fuelled by the real estate bubble and cheap credit in America – quickly starts to evaporate in the wake of the country’s economic crisis in 2008. Yet even as their money problems worsen, the two move ahead as though they haven’t a worry in the world. In particular, Jacqueline is absolutely sanguine as she dons tight tops and short shorts to scamper about between homes, charity events, and health spas where she receives Botox treatments.
We learn that David achieved billionaire status as a Florida-based financial baron selling resort timeshares to credit-hungry Americans who could ill afford the purchases. Now with his fortunes turning we see him as a man oblivious to the fact that the country’s wild spending spree is over. As his company bleeds money with no end in sight he goes on boasting about his business savvy and association with former President George W. Bush. Hoping against hope he pursues inventive ways to leverage his business back to health. Jacqueline meanwhile remains boisterous and optimistic while providing tours of that garish, half-built palace even as the family’s thinning finances threaten to usher in a lifestyle akin to that of the Kraft Dinner and Walmart crowd. The kinds of people who do seek out credit counselling when faced with problems from debts. In the already huge home the Siegels inhabit Jacqueline ends up laying off all but one of 19 servants whereupon it’s revealed that the family dogs are leaving feces all over the place since no one in residence appears to possess poop-scoop skills (it seems that with so many servants once ready to attend to them the animals were never house trained).
By film’s end the whole house of cards – or perhaps I should say palace of cards – is under threat of collapse. Yet we see no let up in Jacqueline’s generally sunny attitude. Her distance from reality is sometimes astonishing. In tightening her purse strings, she must leave go the family’s private jets – now parked for want of money to buy fuel and pay flight crews - and fly commercially for the first time in decades. She then rents a car from Hertz and enquires about the name of the car’s driver as though a chauffeur is part of the rental package. Only the slightest chink in her armour of cheery entitlement appears when she expresses concern that her kids might now “actually have to go to college.” David however by this point is finally beginning to see the writing on the wall as his company continues to falter. He has become miserable and withdrawn; small matters such as the household’s electric bill stir anger in him. Despite all the trouble though the queen’s palace still stands half built with foreclosure looming. And there the story hangs.
After watching this documentary I wondered how a film crew could get away with producing such a candid expose of the Siegel family. Then it dawned on me that David and Jacqueline – pretty much through to the end of the filming – relished the thought of showing off their riches to the world. And even as their wealth decreased they were living in states of denial while suffering from the blind hubris that comes with inflated notions of self-importance and entitlement. I’ve since deduced that the Siegels could not have had any say in the film’s final edited version since after seeing the finished work David Siegel reportedly brought suit for defamation against the film’s director.
Since the story here covered the time period leading up to the film’s 2012 release I decided to troll the Internet for updates about the Siegels’ progress (or lack thereof). According to the latest reports the family’s fortunes appear to be improving. Then again that’s according to David. He brags of still owning his private jets and yes the half-built palace still remains in the family’s possession. But he admits he has had to make adjustments. He charters out the private jets now and should someone perchance offer him a lot of money for the palace... well he just might consider selling that roofless, mostly empty 90,000 square feet of space where after all a grand central stairway stands majestically in rough cement.
Now one might ask is there a moral to this near Shakespearean tragicomedy? I think so. In fact I think there may be two. Firstly the learning here is that anyone making any amount of money can in a sense be poor; it all depends on how you spend and how realistic you are about living within your means. Secondly I think there is a lesson about respecting money as a tool for genuine living and intelligent spending rather than as a means to spend foolishly and show the world that you are not only keeping up with the Joneses but you are far surpassing them.