The director of an interesting film about the largest single-family home in the United States was cleared of defamation charges in court:
Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.
An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19…
Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.
“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.
An unflattering but true story can still be told. But, if the story was not going to be positive, why participate in the first place or go through the whole process after things had turned sour? As I note in my quick review of the film, the story is less about the big house and more about what happens when someone loses lots of money and disconnects from his family. Also see a September 2013 update on the fate of the home.
The couple at the heart of the documentary The Queen of Versailles is back in their big house and headed back to television:
David and Jackie Siegel, last seen in the Documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” are the first guests in a new CNBC program, “Secret Lives of the Super Rich,” premiering September 25 at 9 p.m.
Even in a show dedicated to conspicuous consumption, the Siegels are special. When last seen, the Siegel empire was in disarray and their Orlando-area mansion — designed to resemble Versailles — was in foreclosure.
But at least the Siegel economy has rebounded. David Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time share company is recording record profits, he says. Now he’s repurchased the manse from the bank and has resumed construction.
How big is the place? It has 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens and a 20-car garage. It is so big that at one point in the tour, Jackie Siegel gets lost and doesn’t know what room she’s in.
It will be interesting to get an update on the state of the home. Though it is quite unnecessary, it is quite a building.
My biggest complaint about this article: the title suggests the home is a McMansion. It may share some features such as harkening back to older architectural styles and owners who seem interested in space as well as impressing people. But, this is way beyond a McMansion in terms of size and even way beyond a “normal” mansion. There is a reason a documentary was made about the house: it is one of the largest houses in the United States. This house cannot be mass produced nor is it within buying range of the middle-class or upper middle-class.
I recently watched the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which details the quest of David and Jacqueline Siegel to built the largest house in the United States. My thoughts on the film:
1. I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed more of the movie isn’t about the house. And, I hope the house is completed just to see what an 85,000 square foot house looks like.
2. The film ends up being a lot more about what happens when a wealthy person/family suddenly sees that money disappears. This is an interesting story in itself. How do they adjust? How much of their behavior really changes? Even if they say they can readjust to a lower income, which is closer to what they grew up with, it appears this is is a really hard process. This reminds me of recent research suggesting people feel losses more strongly compared to equal gains.
3. Jackie is a somewhat sympathetic character but David Siegel is the one to watch here. His mood gets darker and darker as his financial prospects dim. I felt sorry for him; he freely admits at several points that he can’t separate his family and work and it shows in how he lives. Is this what trying to hold on to money looks like? If so, it doesn’t look attractive at all.
4. The film does address at various points who is responsible for the situation the Siegels are in: banks who made money easily available or people who got addicted to this easy money? But, the film doesn’t go far enough in trying to resolve this. It would be interesting to see banks or financial institutions interviewed on this particular case, or even more broadly, to get their side. We see the personal fallout of the problem as the Siegel family tries to recover but the film only hints at the bigger picture.
While this is an interesting story, I wonder: if the outlandishly large house was not involved, how different is this from a number of reality shows or films about wealthy people? In the end, I do think the family is pretty honest about the changes they are experiencing and perhaps it is this authenticity that sets this documentary apart.
(Note: critics like the film. On RottenTomatoes, 98 out of 103 reviews were fresh.)
More reviews are coming out of the new documentary The Queen of Versailles (and critics are liking it according to RottenTomatoes.com) but I would still argue with some of the depictions of the 90,000 square foot house at the center of the film. Here is an example: the Jewish Daily Forward has a headline titled “The Biggest McMansion of Them All.” I’ve argued this before: a 90,000 square foot home is far, far beyond McMansion territory. This is the land of the ultra-rich. Take this information from the same Jewish Daily Forward story:
David Siegel, 76, is the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, which he claims is “the largest privately owned time-share company in the world.” Jackie, 31 years his junior, is David’s surgically enhanced wife, and mother to seven of his 13 children. They live in a 26,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Fla., with a household staff of 19. They believe the house is too small…
All went well until the credit crunch of 2008. The Siegels’ problems weren’t caused by the house — though it did become a burden. Rather, David’s company ran into trouble as lending dried up. Typically, Westgate customers borrowed money from the company to pay for their vacation time-shares. The company, in turn, borrowed from the banks at lower interest rates. When the banks stopped lending, the bottom fell out.
Added to that difficulty was the burden of the PH Towers Westgate, a new 52-story high-rise luxury resort in Las Vegas, which drained Siegel’s corporate resources as well as $400 million of his own money. Finally, in November of 2011, Siegel was forced to sell…
Originally, the project was going to be a look at how the wealthy live and, of course, at the Siegel’s house-in-progress. It was very much in line with Greenfield’s previous work as a documentarian and photographer.
I’m looking forward to seeing this film at some point but it is difficult to draw conclusions about McMansions and American excess from one ultra-wealthy couple. Thus far, it sounds like reviewers and others see this film as a metaphor for the American economic crisis of the last five years or so and I’m not sure you can stretch it that far. As a view into the life of the elite, it may be fascinating but it would be difficult to describe this as a “typical” experience that explains the logic behind all McMansions and excessive consumption.