This is the third article of a series. The first one is here and the second one here.

Earning and saving money both take time, effort, knowledge, attention, and continuous dedication. Since we know that willpower is limited, and so are energy and time, it can make sense for a lot of people to put a keener focus on making more money, which has a greater potential than saving.

However, potential is never a guarantee of earnings, and high debt and spending can destroy even the largest of incomes, so it’s crucial not to overextend. The fascinating documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” which I watched recently at the movies, illustrates this subject beautifully.

The trailer will probably give you an impression that this is something like a special extended episode of “The Real Housewives of Orlando” on Bravo, and in some sense that is true (Bravo has bought the rights to the film). And of course the audiences are tempted to judge and point fingers at the excess. However, there is much more to it than a reality show, and I believe this film is a rich cultural artifact for those interested in the study of money and psychology.

The plot

David Siegel is a real estate mogul, Jackie Siegel is a former beauty queen; they have eight children and more money than they know what to do with. At the start of the movie David claims that he is directly responsible for getting George W. Bush elected in Florida in 2000, but he can’t tell us how he did it because “it’s probably illegal.” He’s also crazy about the Miss America pageant and loves to host the contestants and flirt with the girls. Jackie, a former Mrs. Florida, goes from one fundraiser to another wearing skin-tight clothes and a collection of shoes that includes a pair of $17,000 boots, while an army of nannies and housekeepers look after her life.

At the height of the real estate bubble, Siegel’s company is selling $1 billion a year worth of timeshares to people who can’t afford them, and Jackie and David are building a 90,000-square-foot mansion. Then the economy crashes, and it’s not just their business that suffers: they risk losing it all because everything they own has a mortgage on it. Their creditors take control, put David on a salary, and the Siegels have to learn to live on a budget like everybody else (not really like everybody else, but you get the idea: they now have limits like us mortals). As the bubble bursts, their lives fall into disarray.

The characters

“The Queen of Versailles” won one of the Best Documentary awards at Sundance, but probably not just based on the main plot, even if that plot is similar in trajectory (though not in scale) to the lives of millions of people before and after the onset of the Great Recession. Yes, the scale of the Siegels’ lives is gargantuan, and that gets quick attention, but I believe the real strength of the film is the careful examination of its characters, and the way it depicts their humanity amid the surreal settings.

And this is where the documentary gets really good: the words that come out of people’s mouths in front of the camera are profoundly revealing and deserving of attention. While the title and trailer hint at Jackie as the main character, I found David to be the more fascinating subject, because he is the one who knows money and how to make it, whereas Jackie appears clueless about finances (though we later find out she’s quite smart).

Here a few quotes I managed to jot down in the darkness of the movie theater:

“If they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich– if they don’t want to feel rich they are probably dead.” David Siegel on selling timeshares to those who can’t really afford them.

“If you’re using money to make money, why have an asset that doesn’t have a mortgage on it?” David Siegel on why he is broke in spite of his enormous earnings.

“Work is my life 24/7,” and “Nothing makes me happy these days. I can’t separate business from personal.” David Siegel when battling for the survival of his empire, while becoming emotionally unavailable to his family.

“Lenders are pushers, we’re addicts” and “The bankers made us do it.” If you think only the poor get in debt and the rich are pure and virtuous, this shows you a different reality.

Every character is supremely interesting to watch: Jackie, who got a degree in Computer Engineering but fled that field to become a model because, she says, the people she worked with hated their jobs. Her children, who learn that now that they lost everything “they’ll probably have to go to college and get jobs.” Their Filipina nanny, who hasn’t seen her own children grow up and is obsessed with building a concrete house for her aging father. Jackie’s chauffeur, who also lost everything in real estate and borrows his employers’ Rolls-Royce to rent for weddings. Their adopted teenager, who was rescued from an abusive household and is able to observe things with greater clarity than the adults around her. The estranged son, who grew up poor while his father got rich and relates to him now as an employee relates to a boss. The thousands of people who tour the company’s properties with mouths agape and buy timeshares on credit.

And the theme that pervades each character’s story is is how we relate to money. Money is the biggest star of this film.

Casino Capitalism

In spite of the misinformation you’ll get from the Internet echo chamber, let me state clearly that the eponymous house is NOT a replica of the real Versailles. The Siegels aren’t interested in history or what happened to the former occupants of that palace. While a visit to France inspired them to build their own McMansion on steroids, the architecture was actually copied from a Vegas casino.

And Las Vegas shapes the very core of this drama. The bleeding heart of Siegel’s empire and the cause of his financial troubles was a tower in Vegas with $400 million in unpaid bills. We also find out that David’s parents never had any money because they lost everything in Vegas, a place where they were made to feel rich even though they were nobodies (just like his timeshare customers). And while David is a genius at making money, and shows an admirable tenacity in the face of adversity, he also comes across as a gambler who overextended himself by betting everything on winning perpetually… just like so many of us would in similar circumstances, because we already did in our own little ways.

As of the writing of this review, David Siegel’s fortune seems to be on the rise again, and while I wouldn’t dare guess what’s going on with his family, I do wish them the best.

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