November 12, 2012 -- The history of the economic meltdown of 2008 is a tale of millions of people losing their homes to foreclosure. I assume this damage was largely limited to the middle class, but some of the nation's wealthiest people were also hit hard. “The Queen of Versailles” is a documentary of the personal history of one rich family's struggle to adapt to a new economic and emotional reality after the housing bubble burst. What is revealed here is both ugly and sad.
A documentary crew followed the super rich Florida family of timeshare mogul David Siegel and Jacqueline Siegel both before and after the financial crisis that hit their Westgate Resorts time-share empire. Before the crisis, the Siegel family was flying high, with many famous, rich friends in business, politics and show business. They held huge parties in their big house. Siegel brags that he got George W. Bush elected by some unspecified illegal means in Florida. If true, this would be ironic since it was Bush's policies of financial deregulation and lax oversight of the financial industry that led to Siegel's downfall.
Siegel built his financial empire on vacation time shares. His Westgate Resorts empire was the world's largest property timeshare company. He sold people on the idea of luxury vacations in time share units more luxurious than most top-end hotels. But his whole empire was built on a house of cards. It was built on money loaned by banks at low interest rates.
Siegel's home and everything else he owned was mortgaged and that money was put back into the business in an endless cycle of acquisition and expansion. At the time the housing bubble burst, Siegel was building the largest private home in the U.S. Some 90,000 square feet in size. It was modeled after Versailles in France, and some Las Vegas architecture, too. At the same time, he was just finishing up his major new business construction project, a huge new Westgate Resort complex in Las Vegas.
Jacqueline (Jackie) Siegel, like her husband, came from a humble background and both had been married before. A stunning beauty in her youth, she was a model and major beauty contest winner, but she is no dumb blond. She also had a college degree related to computers and had worked for IBM. Siegel has an eye for beautiful women, and was a major sponsor of the Miss America beauty pageant. In the film, it seems like Jackie was a trophy wife. As she gets older, Siegel seems to get more emotionally distant from her. Jackie knows this and tries to stay young looking with numerous beauty and medical treatments.
When the financial collapse hits, at a very bad time for Siegel, he is immediately hit with a cash flow crisis. He can't get the bank loans he needs to keep his business running anymore. He is forced to lay off thousands of employees and put most of his properties up for sale. It appears as if Siegel could have gotten a government-backed restructuring deal like General Motors got, he could have gotten past the crisis in pretty good shape. This film shows what happens when you go through this process with no government help. The banking industry, which had been Siegel's friend and partner, quickly became Siegel's deadly enemy, refusing him the cash to keep his business going, and at the same time, forcing him to sell his most prized and profitable properties.
Home life for the Siegels deteriorates right along with the business. Most of the maids and cooks are laid off. The few that are left are unable to maintain the vast Siegel home with all of its children and pets. Pets start dying from lack of food, water and basic care. Only the dog is left, and it is leaving dog doots all over the floor. The house is a mess. Jackie and kids are spoiled. They don't do much to help the overwhelmed nanny, Virginia Nebab. Virginia has her own sad story. She sends most of her salary back home to the Philippines. She has spent little time with her own family back home. She seems caught between two worlds.
Jackie oversees her own business, a thrift store that provides cheap goods to the poor. She is also a compulsive shopper. One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is a massive Christmas shopping trip to Wal-Mart which results in three vehicles full of toys and other mindless consumer goods. Her husband complains about the spending, the lights left on in the house, and increasingly retreats to his room, where he plots to recover his lost empire. Nearly his entire world is consumed by his business.
It is sad, if you don't consider the enormous waste in the Siegel household, and the bitter resentments and indifference of the various family members. Those who have lived in both worlds, Jackie, and one of her children, from another marriage, both say it is better to be rich than to be poor. It seems a lot easier to adjust to having more money, than to adjust to having less money. That is probably true of just about everyone.
If you've ever wondered how that one percent of the richest lives, this film will show you how one family lives (they are probably back in the 99 percent now), and it ain't pretty. They are a lot like the rest of us. No smarter, no wiser, not morally superior, and just as prone to the same kinds of mistakes we all make. This film illustrates a counter view to those expressed in Charles Murray's book, “Coming Apart” (and other books like it) which claim the rich are morally superior to the lower classes of people.
These kinds of views are used to support tax policies based on the “Trickle Down” theory of economics. That is, if you give big tax breaks to the rich, everyone, including the poor, will benefit. This theory has proven untrue since it has been in force over the past 30 years. It turns out that when you give tax breaks to the rich, the money never trickles back down to the middle class or the poor. It just stays up there, and in foreign investments, Swiss banks, the Cayman Islands and many other tax havens.
Since this tax policy was first implemented during the Ronald Reagan presidency, it has led to the greatest upward distribution of wealth from the poor and middle classes to a tiny minority of nation's richest people since the Great Depression. The divide between rich and poor is now as great as it ever has been in history. And what do they do with all that money? Watch this film and you will see. This film rates a B+.
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