I caught “The Queen of Versailles” a week ago at my favorite art house theater, the multiplex crowds for “The Dark Knight Rises” not yet having thinned out to my liking. It was a smart choice. The film, directed by photographer extraordinaire Lauren Greenfield and debuting this past January at the Sundance Film Festival (she won Best Director in the documentary category), is about the ultimate American real estate white elephant, a 90,000-square-foot unfinished palace near Orlando, Florida, and more centrally, the family hoping to inhabit it. But deep down, this reality TV-style trip is a parable about the addictive nature of money, the downfall of people who can’t say “no” to what it can buy, and the difficulty in reconciling one’s self to reality. In other words, it’s about the power of denial over the human mind.
The undeniable reality of the 10-acre, $75 million lakefront palace, fittingly named “Versailles,” is that it’s been vacant, unfinished and padlocked for virtually all of the last few years. Work very recently resumed, but it likely will be years before this house becomes a home. Moving day can’t come soon enough for its owner, David Siegel, one of the richest men in America – assuming he lives long enough to celebrate.
Siegel, now 77, is the founder and CEO of the Orlando-based Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-held timeshare resort company in the world. If you own a timeshare condo in Florida or somewhere else in the U.S., the chances are good you bought it from one of Siegel’s low-keyed but hard-edged salespersons. By 2007, near the tail end of last decade’s real estate boom, Westgate had 28 time share resorts (among other properties) in its portfolio, accounting for about 11,000 villas and 500,000 owners. Up until that time, the firm enjoyed 20 percent annual growth. Financing has come mainly from second- tier, non-depository lenders such as Textron, CapitalSource and GMAC. “They were throwing it at us,” he recalls.
Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Townhall.com Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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