Friday Distraction: “The Queen of Versailles”

The White House’s “opening offer” in fiscal cliff talks – the one that has Republicans howling with laughter – includes a small amount of potential stimulus money. The chief use of that money would aid homeowners who needed to modify their mortgages. You can understand why Republicans laugh at that, because in the four years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, the government’s hardly done anything to fix that underlying reason.

This put me in the right mood for The Queen of Versailles. Other Slatesters have discussed the movie, but it’s now on video and shipping via Netflix, and it’s extraordinary. You can describe the plot in 20 seconds: David Siegel and his wife Jackie are building the largest house in America, until David’s time-share empire collapses and they run out of money. That description makes it sound like a funny-goofy VH1 special. The movie’s really about the causes of the crisis, and the growing gap between the elites and underclass, and how little our current conversation has to do with that stuff.

It kicks off a bizarro sequel to Grey Gardens. This movie would not exist unless the guileless Siegels thought that the world would want to learn about their tacky mega-home. (“This is your room?” asks one of Jackie’s friends as she gets a tour of the cavernous, unfinished building. “No, that’s my closet!” says Jackie.) David, a doughy septuagenerian, lets cameras film him strolling around without a shirt, and brags that he, personally, elected George W. Bush. Jackie, a former model (a “Mrs. Florida,” not “Miss Florida”), has the sort of spray-tanned, breast-implant-carrying physique that makes you understand how Jill Kelley could become a Florida socialite.

Filming started a few months before the crash, so we get to see how these people got rich – and it’s sad as all hell. Siegel’s time-share business peaks when he opens a luxury tower in Las Vegas, home to a hive of sellers who are told that they will “save lives” by selling vacations for Siegel’s Westgate Resorts. Lower-middle class people, enticed by free gifts, take some time off the strip and show up at the presentations. “Ninety percent are what we call ‘moochers,’” says Siegel’s son, who runs this side of the business. “One hundred percent of our sales are done on the first day.”

The hard-selling Siegel employees try to convince their marks to buy time shares before said marks can do the math and realize the risks. We see one couple, both tattooed and glum-looking, grow more and more interested as they’re told that they can save thousands of dollars if, instead of booking motels every time they come to Vegas, they buy a time-share condo in the tower. Eventually, the husband pushes a credit card across the table. “I can’t believe we just did it!” he says, with little evident joy. He could do it because he had credit.

And everything falls apart. The market crash tanks the time-share business. Jackie tours one call center that used to be devoted to Westgate, now turned into a pathetically sad collections office. Without cheap credit, there is no time-share business, and Siegel’s wealth vanishes in a matter of months. “I would not say, today, that I’m a billionaire,” he says, as he schleps his private plane. “It’s touch and go.”

Most of the documentary tracks the Siegels as they adjust to actual budgeting. You think it’s gotten as dark as it could possible get, after one of the family’s omnipresent pets dies from lack of care and one of the Siegel brood mutters that “I didn’t know we had a lizard.” Then the Asian maid who lives in a retrofitted playhouse is made to dress up like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer for a Christmas party, practicing her dance moves in a bathroom mirror. In some ways, this is even weirder than Grey Gardens.

But it has a better moral lesson. I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the Oscar-winning documentary about the crash, Inside Job, with its smug narrator scoring points on Bush economists and calling out the ones who wouldn’t sit to be shamed. The Queen of Versailles is a far superior crash fable, because it’s about the soldiers, not the generals. The pre-crash housing market and banking industry was a massive con, and even the Siegels were victims – yeah, it sounds ridiculous when Jackie wonders why TARP didn’t help “common people, like us,” but it’s not wrong. David Siegel becomes a stand-in for all the self-made businessmen who think that markets are essentially fair, and he can beat them, as long as the government stays out of the way.

He fails. After filming completed, Siegel sold his beloved Vegas tower to stay solvent. One year later, he became famous again – he told employees that he might fire them all if Barack Obama were re-elected. He was suckered into expanding too quickly because of loose bank regulations, and he was still convinced that anyone trying to meddle with that system was the one causing him real pain.

There’s a happy ending to that part of the story. Siegel didn’t fire his employees. He gave them 5 percent raises. We don’t know what happened to all of the suckers who bought Westgate mortgages even after the company knew it was going to foreclose on its properties. But we can guess. And we should probably keep them in mind.