Visit the real-estate web site for the most expensive home in America, a 90,000-square-foot, $100-million Florida mega-mansion that has been nicknamed Versailles, and you will see plans for 13 bedrooms, 10 kitchens, a full-size baseball field and two grand staircases.
You also will see a quote from Duke de Saint-Simon, a courtier at the real Palace of Versailles, describing the tastes of its original occupant, King Louis XIV, of France: “He loved splendour, magnificence, and profusion in all things, and encouraged similar tastes in his Court.”
What the site fails to include, along with the circumstances that forced this unfinished monstrosity onto the market, is what Saint-Simon saw as the result of the Sun King’s champagne tastes.
“He compelled his courtiers to live beyond their income, and gradually reduced them to depend on his bounty for the means of subsistence. This was a plague which, once introduced, became a scourge to the whole country.”
The Queen of Versailles, a startling new documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield and released Friday in Canada, began as a film about a house being built by David Seigel, billionaire owner of Westgate Resorts, which he calls the world’s largest private time-share business, and his bleached-blond, balloon-breasted wife, Jacqueline.
But when the market collapsed in 2008, paralyzing Westgate Resorts, the Siegel-owned time-share business, and forcing the family to put the Lake Butler Mansion (as it’s properly known) on the market, the film became a parable of American excess. “I was really hoping to make a film people could relate to in a personal way even though the characters are so big and their situation is so unusual,” Ms. Greenfield says. “In a way, we were all complicit in what led to the crisis.”
It is the perfect movie for a Desperate Housewives age. A time when individuals can amass great fortunes through dubious means, using it to buy both political access and just an insane amount of stuff. It is about wealth and power, aspirational spending and delusions of grandeur. It is about how what we want to be often doesn’t line up with what we can afford to be.
Ms. Greenfield is a photographer known for her searing examinations of societal desire, packaged in books such as Girl Culture and THIN, and films including “kids + money.” She imagined the documentary about the Siegels would focus on the house and the complex class dynamics between the family and their mostly Filipino staff, like a “contemporary Upstairs Downstairs.”
At first, it seems unlikely that people will root for the Siegels. Jackie, a former pageant queen, is 30 years younger than her husband, favours low-cut tops and short shorts, and wants to move out of their current 26,000-square-foot home because the family is “bursting out at the seams.”
Her husband brags of personally getting George W. Bush elected in 2000 by delivering him 2,000 votes in Florida (how, he does not explain) and has created an empire by enticing “greedy people” to invest in vacation properties.
When asked why he wants to build such a big house, he smugly replies, “because I can.” He says this while sitting on a gilded throne.
The couple’s seven children (they also care for one of Jackie’s nieces, an orphan) ride around the home on Segways and travel by private jet. Their new house will have a rink for ice and roller skating, two tennis courts and a bowling alley. During a tour, Jackie shows off $5-million worth of marble imported from China.
But as things unravel, it’s hard not to see the Siegels as an extreme version of any family that spends too much and saves too little. Mr. Siegel admits, on camera, that he had never taken a penny out of the company, not even to set aside education funds for his many children, and had personally signed for all his business loans, meaning that if he loses his business, his family could be out on the street, too.
This surprised Ms. Greenfield: “I always thought people at the billionaire level would never be personally exposed on this kind of scale, that they would always have insulation to the vicissitudes of the stock market.”
The Siegels manage to be both the villains and the victims of the financial crisis, accusing the banks of being “pushers” who got them addicted to “cheap money” even as they themselves push time-share agreements on low-income families.
As Mr. Siegel tries to hang on to the PH Towers, a Las Vegas development that has become a financial albatross for his company, his wife attempts to reel in her spending, forsaking Versace for Wal-Mart and laying off some of the household staff. He, meanwhile, expresses his money worries like every dad in the world – by yelling at Jackie and the kids for leaving the lights on.
Like most good documentaries, the movie ends before the story does. Mirroring the country that facilitated their success, the family seems momentarily chastened but largely unchanged.
At one point Mr. Siegel tells the filmmaker that he doesn’t gain strength from his marriage, but regards his wife as “another child.” But Ms. Greenfield reports that the two are still together. Mrs. Siegel is helping to promote the film even as her husband has initiated legal proceedings, accusing the filmmaker of defaming his company.
He apparently wanted the movie to end with his redemption, and it does seem as though his business has recovered.
Near the end of the film, Richard, his adult son from a previous marriage, explains that Mr. Siegel need only give up the keys to the Las Vegas development and he can keep building his house, borrowing money, and “go back to making more money than he knows what to do with.”
“Not all of that has happened,” Ms. Greenfield says, “but some of it has.”
This month, Westgate Resorts issued a press release saying that it “is more profitable now, on a margin basis, than at any time in our 30-year history.”
WHAT $100-MILLION BUYS
The Lake Butler Mansion, nicknamed Versailles because of its grand ambitions and loose resemblance to the French palace, has been on the market since 2010, a year after construction was halted.
The home has a price tag of $100-million finished ($75-million “as is”) with features that include “everything we could dream of,” says owner David Siegel.
Location: It sits on 10 acres (with 1,200 feet of lakeshore) at 6121 Kirkstone Lane, just around the corner from golf legend Tiger Woods in Windermere, Fla., with a view of Disney World fireworks in nearby Orlando.
Floor plan: The 90,000 square feet include 13 bed-rooms, 10 kitchens, sushi bar, a two-storey library, two grand staircases and a 20-car garage with “showroom finish.”
Work: And office divided into “his and hers” spaces by a 12-foot aquarium.
Play: A movie theatre, a video arcade, a baseball field and a boathouse plus three pools with a half-acre deck.
Creative process:“We never set out to build the biggest house in America, it just kind of happened,” insists Mr. Siegel’s wife, Jacqueline. “I said, ‘I’d like to have a bowling alley,’ and then he says, ‘I’d like a health spa,’ and then I said, ‘We need maids’ quarters.’”