Riches to rags: A story of overspending in a weak economy

Nathan Hager,

WASHINGTON – In 2007, David and Jackie Siegel had it all.

He was the 70-something founder and chief executive officer of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world, and was in the midst of selling shares in PH Towers, the biggest resort property on the Las Vegas Strip.

She was his 40-something, buxom former beauty queen wife, riding in yachts and traveling in a private jet with eight children.

Together, they were living the American dream, and planning to make that dream even more lavish by building the largest single-family home in the U.S., a 90,000-square-foot palace modeled after Louis XIV’s royal chateau in Versailles.

The home, in the gated Windermere community near Orlando, Fla., doesn’t so much defy description as exhaust it. According to its official real estate listing, it’s a 13-bed, 23-bath extravaganza with 10 kitchens, two grand staircases, tennis courts, a bowling alley, an indoor ice skating rink, a video arcade, movie theaters, tennis courts and a baseball diamond that doubles as a parking space for parties.

Then, the Great Recession struck.

“This is almost like a riches to rags story,” David Siegel says in a new documentary about his family’s outsized struggles during the housing collapse, called “The Queen of Versailles.”

“I thought in the beginning that they would be untouchable,” says director Lauren Greenfield, who began following the Siegel family’s story as an exploration of extraordinary wealth.

“I didn’t realize until 2010 that David had put everything he had on this building he was building in Vegas [PH Towers], over $600 million building,” she says.

Siegel financed much of his timeshare business through the same mortgage-backed securities that lost their value during the financial collapse. To keep his business afloat he was forced to lay off thousands of employees, sell a controlling interest in PH Towers, and put his dream home, Versailles, up for sale.

“Their story is really an allegory about the mistakes that we all made, and even as a country with our debt during the crisis: living too large, overextending, spending money that we didn’t have,” Greenfield says.

Greenfield won the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where her film had its U.S. premiere. It makes its D.C. premiere this Friday at the E Street Cinema.

For the Siegels, though, the story isn’t over.

Versailles remains under construction, and even though their lenders have tried to foreclose on the property for $15 million, the Siegels are still looking for buyers.

Asking price: $100 million fully constructed, $75 million as is.

See a trailer for “The Queen of Versailles” here:

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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