Countless books, documentaries and films have given us insight into the financial crisis, with Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award winning documentary The Inside Job as the crown jewel, delivering sophisticated financial information to the masses. In The Queen of Versailles, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield uncovers how impulsiveness and financial ignorance, not necessarily Wall Street or the banks, got us here. Turns out the financial crisis is as simple as giving candy to a baby—resulting in a sugar rush that came crashing down.
We are assuming it’s late 2007 when shabby looking customers roll into Westgate Towers (the flagship Vegas location for Westgate Resorts) a booming timeshare company with lavish amenities. The philosophy for getting potential customers through the door is giving them free tickets to Disney Land or a Vegas show. As Richard Siegel, Vice President of Sales and the son of founder and C.E.O David Siegel, describes, “it’s not a nice word, but we call them ‘mooches.’ The sales team is trained “to take someone greedy like that and get them to buy today.”
We watch in dismay as customers, who probably can’t afford a car payment let alone a time-share, take out their credit cards and seal the deal as the car salesman esque Westgate employee assures them “this will change your life.” In his pitch to sales associates Richard tells his staff they are saving lives—people who take vacations are less likely to die of a heart attack, their jobs are as important as a Dr., nurse or fireman. Just like a nurse or fireman lives can dramatically slip through their fingers which they did after the subprime mortgage crisis hit in early 2008.
Through the years Westgate had been able to expand its business by getting the banks to lend them money in order to pay off their loans. Like other real estate companies, Westgate is diving out loans to people who can’t afford to pay. An incentive to consider a customer’s income no longer exists, if the employees at Wall Mart or Red Robin can’t pay their mortgage, the banks will. It’s a process everyone should be aware of by now, big banks sweeping up mortgages and packaging them as fancy investments.
If a customer couldn’t pay on time it was considered an asset, driving up interest and other late fees. By the time homeowners realized they were in over their heads it was too late and many opted to file for bankruptcy instead. In 2010 more than 1.5 million bankruptcy cases were filed by those with non-business debt, a stark contrast to 2007’s 822,590. David and his company (just like his own customers) relied on these “cheap loans” but after the financial crisis hit the banks stopped loaning money to Westgate, suddenly the biggest timeshare company in the world couldn’t pay their bills.
Greenfield began filming David and his family pre-financial crisis. The family jet, trophy wife and painted selfies were all on display. Not to mention that David and his wife Jackie were building their dream house, a modern day Versailles (in Orlando) strategically placed so they can see the fireworks from Disney World. In all their gaudy adornment we are supposed to hate or at least mock the Siegel’s, but Jackie makes that impossible. The moment we meet her, confessing a thirty-year age gap between she and her husband, “God knows he doesn’t need Viagra, but at least there is that option,” a chemistry begins to blossom.
Jackie — as her boobs will attest — is clearly David’s biggest investment, giving birth to seven of his children and adopting one, impulsively shopping and showering love on everyone she meets. As David confirms “she has a big heart,” clueless at times due to her husband’s financial secrecy, but not dumb—Jackie has a strong self-awareness that her husband lacks. She has been through the gutter with an abusive first husband and odd jobs for the in-between times (cleaning dead bodies for three dollars an hour) Jackie didn’t want to be a secretary at the only real gig in her hometown (IBM) so she got a degree in engineering instead.
In Versailles we watch as the family copes, the dream mansion is about to go into foreclosure, the jet, $500 million worth of marble and David’s grand Westgate tower in Vegas are all on the chopping block. With the live-in help down to two nannies and one housekeeper, the pets are dying as the dog poop is mounting. The point is never to feel sorry for the Siegel’s, but like the financial crisis itself, to learn from their experience and examine how the flow of capitalism works—or at least the fucked up version.
Unlike his extroverted wife, David’s identity is wrapped up in his business and checking the thermostat (he puts signs above the knobs reminding his family to put it at an acceptable temperature). Once in a while his children visit him in his cluttered mancave to enquire as to why he is such a dick. Jackie goes into survivor mode, rounding up unused household and old Westgate items, selling them at a reduced price to former Westgate employees. Her humor and introspection keeps her grounded:
“I am not a stupid person, but when you don’t have the information it makes you look stupid and without the information what can I do? You [the filmmaker] probably have more information than I do?”
For Jackie parties and life keep going, if she has to buy a four-room house, bunk beds will suffice. Her calling is to make people feel joy, regardless of their current state of happiness. When Jackie’s childhood friend, who has never bought a car without cash and doesn’t own a credit card, somehow manages to get a beautiful house with a hefty mortgage, Jackie sends her $5,000 to cover the foreclosure costs. In “evil-doer” bank terms foreclosure means game over, go fuck yourself, but like many Americans the childhood friend has no clue about the fundamentals of a loan.
Versailles reminds us that “having it all” is never really about greed and as Jackie’s adopted daughter whom she plucked from poverty can attest, “at the same time I still want to be the old me in a way, I don’t want to be spoiled. You don’t really have to worry about money but at the same time you do … and then you want more and more.” It’s the age-old concept that somehow the gap that everyone feels in life can be filled. This is an impossible task as the gap exists in order to propel drive.
It comes down to the accreditation of love and acceptance, David is not a whole human being unless he is successful in business and Jackie is accustomed to living in bulk. Without a shirt on your back or a penny to your name are you considered a whole human being in the neo capitalistic society? Not really, but ifVersailles teaches us anything, it’s that the weak have found the Emperor’s clothes, worn them and re-sold them a billion times over to make them look like a King.