David and Jackie Siegel: Meet the King and Queen of Versailles

They lived the American dream and started to build their own palace. Then came the credit crunch...

Los Angeles

David Siegel was living the American dream. A self-made billionaire, married to a former model 31 years his junior, he travelled in private jets and lunched on caviar. Evenings found him at Florida's most exclusive society events, quaffing champagne with celebrities, sports stars, and beauty queens.

Then he made what he now calls his big mistake. In 2007, Siegel agreed to let a documentary film-maker, Lauren Greenfield, chronicle the building of his new home.

It was, from the start, no ordinary project. The 90,000 square foot pile was designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles. It boasted 30 bedrooms, 10 kitchens and sweeping views across open water to Orlando's cultural capital, Disneyworld. The mansion also came complete with an ice rink, a bowling alley, two tennis courts, a beauty salon, a gymnasium and a private baseball field for his eight children. It would be finished with millions of dollars worth of Chinese marble and acres of gold leaf.

It was, in short, to be Siegel's greatest creation; a monument to extraordinary wealth. When completed, he proudly boasted, it would become the biggest private residence ever built in America.

Or at least, that was the plan. But five years and one major financial crash later, Siegel's vast dream home remains just that: a dream. Half built and with construction halted, the place sits empty. Its vast fountains and swimming pools contain little except muddy puddles which have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Ms Greenfield's documentary is, by contrast, very much finished. Called The Queen of Versailles, it offers a compelling insight into the trials and tribulations suffered by 74-year-old Mr Siegel and his 45-year-old wife, Jackie, the 1993 winner of the Mrs Florida America beauty pageant, during their so-far unsuccessful struggle to build the record-breaking residence.

Next month, the film sweeps into Britain. In the US, it has already won awards at the Sundance festival and garnered critical acclaim on its release into cinemas. AO Scott of the New York Times heralded it as: "a sprawling, richly detailed study of ambition, desire, and the wild swings of fortune."

But for all the plaudits, there's a catch. In Hollywood right now, The Queen of Versailles is synonymous with one thing alone: a stupendously ugly lawsuit. Furious at what he sees as the "derogatory and damaging" way he's been portrayed in the film, Mr Siegel has filed a defamation claim against Ms Greenfield and her business partners. Mr Siegel's litigation, which has been seen by The Independent, dubs the documentary "voyeuristic" and "distorted". He says it plays fast and loose with facts and events in order to humiliate his family, seeking to portray them as vulgar, ignorant, out of touch and uncultured.

"The film's a caricature," is how Jackie Siegel put it this week. "There's some truth in it, but a whole lot of exaggeration. Lauren is an artist, she's made a very interesting movie, and it's probably going to make her career. But there is a lot in it that's not 100 per cent true, and that's why David filed the lawsuit."

Like many of their countrymen, the Siegels lived high on the hog during the early 2000s, as the family firm Westgate Resorts ("the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world") rode the sub-prime credit boom. Using silver-tongued salesmen, it was able to aggressively sell its aspirational product to the middle class.

As the film's opening credits roll, Mr Siegel positively revels in his success. We see his private jets, his fast cars and his domestic staff of 14 housekeepers and five nannies. Jackie Siegel, meanwhile, introduces viewers to her collection of lapdogs, rides in a speedboat and blithely informs viewers that she owns "a $17,000 [£10,800] pair of Gucci crocodile boots." During a tour of the half-built Versailles she proudly shows off a room the size of a tennis court. "Is that going to be your bedroom?" asks a friend. "No!" she responds. "It's my wardrobe."

Then the party stops. The film tells how the 2008 housing crisis froze credit markets and duly clobbered the timeshare industry, which was almost entirely reliant on consumer loans. It claims Westgate laid off thousands of employees and was forced to close its signature resort, a vast tower complex on the Las Vegas strip.

Back home, the Siegels suffered cash-flow problems which forced them to abandon work on Versailles and place it temporarily on the market. By the documentary's close, Mr Siegel is reduced to the status of a fallen man: sat at home in his underpants, surrounded by piles of bills, snarling at his wife and children.

As a work of art, The Queen of Versailles works on two levels: as a freak show and a cautionary tale. Its conceit is that the super-wealthy Siegels are no different from ordinary credit-crunched Americans: they over-leveraged during the boom and are suffering during the ensuing bust.

But there's a problem: according to Mr Siegel, key elements of that narrative simply aren't true. His 98-page lawsuit complains that important scenes were orchestrated for Greenfield's cameras. It's less a documentary, he argues, than a "staged theatrical production".

Mr Siegel claims the film overstates, by several thousand, the number of redundancies at Westgate, and presents his business as being on the verge of insolvency when it has in fact recovered and just enjoyed its most successful year ever. Ms Greenfield vigorously disputes both claims.

On a pettier level, he says Ms Greenfield played fast and loose with chronology, and orchestrated crucial sequences of narrative. He accuses her, for example, of insisting that he be interviewed in a gilt throne, which usually resides in the attic, so as to create an impression of pomposity. Ms Greenfield claims the chair is "a fixture in the household".

The Siegels also allege that footage of their domestic life was presented in a manner which wrongly portrays it as dysfunctional and chaotic.

"There are scenes, for example, where you see dog crap all over the house," Mrs Siegel recalled. "Well yes, there was dog crap all over our house at that time, but only because one of our pets had cancer and was getting radiation treatment. The dog was called Paris, in fact, and he just passed."

The lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages and the insertion of a disclaimer at the end of The Queen of Versailles stressing that Westgate remains solvent and that work on the mansion is about to restart. In an email to The Independent, Ms Greenfield denied allegations of impropriety, saying: "There are no staged scenes in the film. My documentary practice consists of cinéma vérité combined with interviews." She also denied all counts of misleadingly editing footage of the Siegel family and their pets.

"The dog poop and pee on the carpet was documented over a 16-month period, well before Paris was sick," read one passage. "In fact, we had almost no contact with Paris, who was a dangerous attack dog and consequently was kept locked away when we were filming. The dog poop and pee was from the other four dogs, who roamed freely and were not house trained."

Whoever eventually prevails in this simmering legal battle, the Siegels can take some comfort in the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jackie revealed this week that her turn in The Queen of Versailles has already led to the offer of a lucrative role in a US reality TV show. "They're going to pay me for taking part," she said. "That's great, because David is refusing to buy me a new i. So if I do this show, I'll have enough pocket money to afford to buy one myself."

Distorted views: Reality on screen

The Queen of Versailles comes at an interesting time for the entertainment industry. In recent years critics have been mulling the ethics of documentary and reality genres, wondering if they have become over-reliant on cynical editing and staged events.

Mr Siegel and his bubbly wife represent a case in point. Like many professed victims of these highly successful productions, they believe film-makers use our natural assumption that the camera never lies to publicly humiliate their subjects.

The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has been accused of distorting footage to suit his political world view – which he denies – while in 2006, two US students claimed they were encouraged to make racist and sexist remarks in the film Borat, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Their case was dismissed.

HBO, meanwhile, shelved the documentary Frat House after allegations that some scenes showing humiliating initiation rites were staged.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Sacha Baron Cohen is definitely not involved in the Freddie Mercury biopic, Brian May has confirmed
film
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
News
news
News
Boyband star Brian Harvey is on benefits and on the verge of homelessness
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Training Coordinator - Financial Services

£32000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor