Doco drama at the palace

A film about an American billionaire's massive mansion has won awards - and a lawsuit from a timeshare magnate alleging staging and inaccuracies.

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 documentary film-maker Lauren Greenfield chronicle the building of his new home.

It was no ordinary project. The 8361sq m 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 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.

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 muddy puddles breeding mosquitoes.

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 Siegel and his 45-year-old wife, Jackie, the 1993 winner of the Mrs Florida America beauty pageant, during their 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 has been portrayed in the film, Siegel has filed a defamation claim against Greenfield and her business partners. It 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."

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 to the middle class.

As the film's opening credits roll, 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 she owns "a US$17,000 ($21,000) 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, 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.

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

He 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 recovered and just enjoyed its most successful year ever. Greenfield vigorously disputes both claims.

On a pettier level, he says 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, to create an impression of pomposity. Greenfield claims the chair is "a fixture in the household".

The Siegels also allege 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," Jackie 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 lawsuit seeks US$75,000 in damages and 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, Greenfield denied allegations of impropriety, saying: "There are no staged scenes in the film. My documentary practice consists of cinema verite combined with interviews." She also denied all counts of misleadingly editing footage of the Siegel family and their pets.

Whoever eventually prevails the Siegels can take some comfort there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jackie said her turn in The Queen of Versailles has led to the offer of a lucrative role in a US reality TV show.

- Independent

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