“Everyone wants to be rich. If they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich. And if they don’t want to feel rich, they’re probably dead.”
— David Siegel in “Queen of Versailles”
David and Jackie Siegel are definitely rich. Here’s how rich: The septuagenarian chief executive of Westgate Resorts and his 40-something former beauty queen wife reside in a home with 17 bathrooms and are in the process of building another with 30.
Still, in the wake of a subprime mortgage crisis that sent this country into an economic spiral, even these Florida billionaires have felt . . . not poor, exactly, but certainly aware that their supersized American dreams needed to shrink. That humbling experience is depicted in “Queen of Versailles,” the tale of the Siegels’ temporarily derailed quest to build the largest private home in the United States: a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion inspired by France’s Palace of Versailles.
The movie illustrates how one astonishingly wealthy family’s attitude toward money was forced to shift after the economic crash. What’s happened since the documentary debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — in particular, David Siegel’s lawsuit against “Queen of Versailles” director Lauren Greenfield — illustrates something else: that even after that shift, this family’s desire to project prosperity has not faded.
Greenfield, a photographer and filmmaker whose previous work has often focused on the American compulsion to keep up with the cash-flushed Joneses, spent nearly three years poking cameras into the Siegels’ opulent lives, capturing footage for what she initially imagined would be “an inside view of wealth.” But during that same time, business at Westgate Resorts, a time-share operation whose financial oxygen is supplied by the same lenders caught up in the mortgage crisis, hit a significant snag. David Siegel’s business was forced to lay off more than 3,394 employees in 2008, after the housing bubble burst.
Those financial troubles led to changes for the Siegel family, a clan that consists of David, Jackie and their eight children, including Jackie’s adopted niece. As shown in the film, their staff of 14 nannies and housekeepers was downsized to five, their private jets were grounded and construction on Versailles had to be halted; the 10-acre property was put on the market in 2010 at an asking price of $100 million completed, $75 million as is.
“When they started to be affected in ways that were similar to how other people had been affected by the crisis, namely losing their home and losing their dream, I realized it was a bigger story that was really an allegory about the overreaching of America,” Greenfield says of her film.
Just how much did the Siegels overreach? Let’s talk about Versailles, a residence nearly twice the size of that place where President Obama lives. The original plans for the Siegels’ suburban palace in Windermere, Fla., a few miles from Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, feature 10 kitchens (including a sushi bar), a bowling alley, a full spa, two movie theaters, a baseball field, a pair of tennis courts and an ice-skating rink. It is their dream house, and Jackie Siegel — the onetime Mrs. Florida with a computer-engineering degree and cleavage that spills forth from every “Real Housewives”-y ensemble she dons — is its Barbie.
Greenfield describes her relationship with Jackie Siegel as “very close.” Which is where things get weird. The wife of David Siegel has attended several screenings of “Queen of Versailles” during its journey through the film festival circuit and appeared recently alongside Greenfield during a “Today” show interview. Yet David Siegel and Greenfield are not on speaking terms.
“I haven’t had any direct contact with him since he filed the lawsuit,” the filmmaker explains.
Right. The lawsuit.
In January, days before the Sundance Film Festival, David Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit against Greenfield, her husband, Frank Evers, who is the movie’s executive producer, and the Sundance Institute, seeking damages of more than $75,000. His original complaint focused on the wording in marketing materials for the film, but he has since broadened the scope of his legal action, dropping Sundance as a defendant and adding Magnolia Pictures, the distributor of “Queen of Versailles,” and Bravo, which has picked up the TV rights. (Officially, the plaintiff is now Westgate Resorts and not Siegel.)
The crux of the mogul’s argument is that the film is damaging his business’s reputation by implying that Westgate is in financial ruin when, he says, the time-share business is profitable again. He also contends that everything we see in “Queen of Versailles” is fiction, a series of set pieces devised by Greenfield to tell the story she wanted to tell. He has requested that a new written coda be added at the film’s conclusion, one that explains that Westgate has rebounded after the recession.
“I would say the only thing truthful about the film was, my wife is a shopaholic, as most women are,” Siegel said during a phone interview. “Other than that, the thing makes for good entertainment. But it’s not factual.”
Greenfield, who won best director for the film at Sundance and is known for her journalistic approach to her subjects, says absolutely nothing in the movie was staged.
“I shot 200 hours over three years with complete access,” she says, adding, “They are not people I would ever tell what to do. They are not people who take any direction and I would never do that in my work.”
Greenfield’s attorney, Martin Garbus, says Siegel’s lawsuit has no merit because he signed an agreement with Greenfield before production began that releases her from charges of defamation or libel. He expects it to be dropped, but Siegel, ever a fighter, sounds as if he’s digging in. When asked if he would stop legal action if Greenfield adds the coda — something the filmmaker won’t do for a variety of reasons, including that it’s, in her words, “a promotional card for Westgate” — he says he’s not sure.
As for his feelings about Jackie — who clearly has no problem promoting this purportedly false film about her life — he says: “It started out that I was kind of against [her support of the movie]. I’m suing the people. I don’t exactly like her hugging them, in public. But then after a while, I said, ‘Let her have her fun.’ ”
David Siegel confirms that he’s taken out another loan on Versailles and that construction is underway again; he expects it to be finished in two years. (It’s also still on the market, at a reduced price of $90 million complete, $65 million as is.) If he doesn’t sell it, he says, his family will move into it. But he admits that, with half of the Siegel brood approaching college age, they may not need all that space.
“The house we have now is more than enough for our family,” he says of their 26,000-square-foot residence.
Opens in the District on July 27.