The Queen of Versailles

A billionaire, a beauty queen and popped bubble produce fireworks and humanity in affecting locally tied documentary

'Don't tell me I'm the bad guy …' – Jan. 6, 2000
Edward Ericson Jr. and Jeffrey C. Billman took on Siegel's "rags to riches to rags to riches saga," from his first TV store in Coconut Grove in 1954 to orange groves and timeshares.
Surprising fact: "He personally feeds the homeless every Thanksgiving."
Choice quote: Following an embittered rent dispute phone call with a straggling tenant: "'Don't tell me I'm the bad guy. I want my money when it's due!'" Later: "Siegel excuses himself to consult with an assistant. Turns out the check was in the mail. Siegel tries to call the tenant back, leaves a message on the machine. 'They did what they said they were gonna do and I think we screwed up,'
he explains."

Outrageous fortune – Jan. 6, 2000
Edward Ericson Jr. and Jeffrey C. Billman spotlighted Siegel's involvement in the so-called Green Swamp, an area of "rolling grasslands and low cypress swamps" covering Polk and Lake counties that contained Siegel's speculative development, Devonwood.
Surprising fact: "David Siegel sold thousands of acres in the Green Swamp. … Although more than 100 landowners received deeds to their property, there is still no road access."
Choice quote: Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Randy Rudder, an early Green Swamp buyer who spent nearly $20,000 on Siegel's land: "I wouldn't mind my money back right now."

Happytown – Feb. 28, 2008
OW editors reminded readers that Siegel's Green Swamp development project was never
completed. Also that week: The mogul lost a $5.4 million federal lawsuit against a former employee who "claimed he groped her and offered her $1 million for sex." The judge later reduced the award to $610,000.
Surprising fact: The employee was dating Siegel's son at the time of the alleged groping.
Choice quote: Siegel in the Orlando Sentinel: "I guess it's because I'm wealthy. I'm a wealthy guy and the jury wants to share the wealth."

The Queen of Versailles


Maybe I've finally watched so much reality TV that I've become inoculated against the shocking behavior of the rich. Maybe reality TV has something to teach feature documentaries. Come to think of it,
forget I said that.

Whatever the reason, something just didn't sit right on my first viewing of The Queen of Versailles, a look at the life of billionaire time-share mogul – and Orlando resident – David Siegel. About half of director Lauren Greenfield's gently stinging portrait of greed, hubris and comeuppance occurs just before the housing crisis froze bank lending and put a chokehold on Siegel's mega-business at a time of particularly outrageous family and business spending. Back then, construction had begun on Siegel's own Xanadu, a 90,000-square-foot house he calls Versailles, as well as a sky-high, obnoxiously lit headquarters in Las Vegas for the company. Jackie, Siegel's third wife, 30 years his junior with an exaggerated bust and a penchant for shopping, has provided him with seven children.

So it is that we're left to anticipate the fall of this local empire, pointing and laughing when Siegel boasts about his legally murky support of George W. Bush while sitting on a gilded chair that looks like a throne, a bust of Louis XIV over his shoulder. We cringe when Jackie shows off what is to be her bedroom-sized closet. Whatever they've done to their investors, it'd take a lot more than financial and ethical obliviousness for me to enjoy the kind of schadenfreude that involves the ruination of a household of children. Besides, if I wanted to watch a surgically enhanced trophy wife play Russian roulette with a bank account and pretend lines like "What's the name of my driver?" at a rental-car place aren't the slightest bit staged, I'd watch Ice Loves Coco. (Actually, I do.)

On repeated viewings, however, Greenfield's humanity and empathy start to shine through, particularly in the case of Coco – er, Jackie, a beauty pageant bombshell who came from humble means and, when the crisis hits, starts to seem far more equipped for austerity measures than her husband, who, tellingly, is a sulking, bitter man when the lines of credit start to close up. While he hopes for a miracle, hidden away in a TV-room cavern of self-pity, Jackie adapts before our very eyes – well, she gives it an admirable shot. We also meet her childhood friend who refuses to ask Jackie for money to save her house. (Jackie gives it to her anyway, but it's too little too late.)

Taken at face value, The Queen of Versailles reveals nothing about the rich that isn't plainly evident on the E! Network. But its most surprising quality is also Jackie's: endurance. After all the pointing and laughing subsides – and, boy, is it ever in order – what's left are human beings switching to survival mode, something that the 99 percent of us (and the fallen 1 percent alike) can certainly relate to.

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