Monday, August 27, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Before the crash in 2008 David Siegel was the king of the time share business. “Everyone wants to be rich; the next best thing is to feel rich," was his mantra. He sold glamour to people who were used to staying in motels. You purchased a mortgage not on a house, but on an “as if existence,” comprised of say one week a year in a Westgate resort. Lauren Greenfield’s film The Queen of Versailles recounts the building of the largest house in the United States. In place of their 26,000 foot residence in Orlando, Siegel and his third wife Jackie, a one time model, used the proceeds from Siegel’s fabulously profitable business to build a 90,000 foot structure which would be larger than The White House which would include such toys as a baseball field, a bowling alley and a children’s theatre. Come to think of it, this doesn’t sound all that outrageous considering the ubiquity of home entertainment centers with their oversized flat screened televisions and bazaar of bizarre electronic gadgets. But then the market fell and it was plain that Siegel merely epitomized the condition of his customers, who like him were purchasing their dreams with cheap loans from banks. In one segment from the pre-crash era the pitch is explained. Most of the modest clientele are mooches who visit the properties to get freebees. They’re the kind of people who have to be made to feel they have gotten over on you. So it’s a vicious cycle with the con man and the conned all becoming dupes of something out of their control, an economy in which the cards would turn out to be stocked against them. In his The Theory of the Leisure Class, the  sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption." But what Greenfield documents is something far more extreme than mere materialism. It’s like realpolitik. Nations and individuals tend to be selfish, but then there's real evil, which is fundamentally inexplicable. David and Jackie Siegel are not just conspicuous consumers, their massive fall is fueled by an almost addictive drive to excess, resulting from a “trickle down” economics that was poisoned from the bottom up. 

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