I recently saw—and recommend—a new documentary called “The Queen of Versailles” by director Lauren Greenfield (who is now being sued by David Siegel, a billionaire who claimed to be one of the richest men in the world. Maybe “ex-billionaire” would now be more appropriate because he lost so much money in 2008 and thereafter. Siegel’s goal in life was to build “the biggest house in America” — 90,000 square feet in Orlando, FL. David and his 30-years younger third wife, Jacquie, were interviewed at length—at long intervals, by director Greenfield, starting in 2007. (One of the best characteristics of “The Queen of Versailles” is the complete absence of voice-over. The Siegels tell their own “truth,” and there is no moralizing by the director.)As the film begins, David and Jacquie, together with their 7 children, numerous servants, and even more numerous fluffy little white dogs, were living in their 26,000 square-foot mansion, also in Orlando—not big enough for the family, they decided—and not enough bathrooms. Construction on the new mega-mansion was half complete. It was named “Versailles” after the couple saw the former residence of the kings of France: they wanted to remind Americans of their upper-crust social status and lifestyle.
When the film opens it is 2009. The financial crisis of 2008 had whisked away much of Siegel’s financial empire. The monster half-built house is empty. A big chunk of Siegel’s assets were lost, including a humungous hotel in Vegas and a string of time-share condo resorts. Siegel eventually laid off over 6,000 employees.
Jacquie will perhaps be best remembered by her always-on-view watermelon-sized silicone implants. She is a friendly, naïve shopaholic who loves her children but doesn’t have much time for them.
David is a workaholic who has no time for anything but saving his failing financial empire. He claims that all Americans want to be as rich as possible, and if that ambition isn’t attainable, then they want to be as rich as they can manage.
I found the nanny’s story the most poignant part of the film. A middle-aged Filipina, she hasn’t been able to afford to go home to see her own family, including her now-adult kids. She says sadly, near the film’s end, that her father’s dream in life had been to live in a cement house. (To anyone who has spent time in poor countries, a “cement house” means a one-room cinderblock dwelling with a tin roof.) “And now,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “my father lives in a cement tomb.”
Seeing this masterful documentary gives us pause: What brings us happiness? Having lots of money—as much as possible? Are there other possibilities? Unfortunately, there seem to be a large, and growing, population of Americans, like David and Jacquie Siegel, for whom The American Dream is to be very, very rich.