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It's a real riches to rags story

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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The financial crisis has found artistic expression in a documentary movie, possibly one of the best ever.

Don't — by all means, do not — live like the family in “The Queen of Versailles,” never knowing when to quit in their pursuit of happiness, defined foolishly.

The stars of this real-life tragicomedy got stopped halfway through building the biggest house in America — 90,000 square feet. Or 20 to 40 times more than reasonably roomy.

“Versailles,” modeled after the palace of French kings, is the American dream pushed to nightmare.

And then the money runs out.

But first, in this case, came an utter absence of values and sense of proportion, appalling and hilarious, too.

This isn't an indictment of capitalism. Rather, of air-headedness.

The only way such a personal expose could be made is that director Lauren Greenfield began shooting it when times were good. That was before the 2008 crisis in sub-prime mortgage financing triggered the recession and cut off credit to overextended developers like David Siegel. Head of the largest time-share company in the world, he calls himself. Another boast: “I elected George Bush president.”

Siegel's sales stopped overnight. He laid off 6,000 workers. Had to, he says, teary-eyed. Office floors of empty sales cubicles make him feel bad.

And soon after, he and his third wife Jackie, a botoxified onetime beauty queen, had to lay off 19 employees of the mansion they already owned while upscaling towards 90,000 square feet. Most of the Filipino nannies of their eight young children were let go. But at 43, Mrs. Siegel, 30 years younger than hubby, enjoyed having babies like other beautiful stuff.

You haven't seen a shopper until you've seen Jackie Siegel. She can't help it, David tells the camera. He also observes everybody wants to be rich. And being rich means having things, doesn't it: swimming pools, TVs everywhere, pedigreed dogs (even if not perfectly house-trained) and lots and lots of stuff. Armfulls and cartfulls of toys, games and clothes roll out of Wal-Mart to the Siegels' limo as Jackie buys for a cheerful Christmas, never mind recession.

David Siegel says he grew up humble, the son of a storekeeper with a weakness for the tables of Las Vegas. Fittingly the pride of his empire stands tall in that same Nevada skyline, a 52-floor slab of glass and steel with a rooftop sign so bright that a neighbor on first-name terms, Donald Trump, urges him to cut its wattage.

In the hole $300 million, Siegel stubbornly won't “turn over the keys” to the mortgage-holders.

The camera captures the high pressure of sales pitches. Clients buy a week or two annually in an apartment billed as a bargain.

If all they want is the free promotional trip to Vegas, they're “moochers,” a sales pusher says. “They've got to be sold the first day, or you'll never see ‘em again.”

A chastened David Siegel observes that rags to riches is the classic story line. “This is more like riches to rags,” he says, incredulous and evidently peeved that the crew is still filming.

But they got a better story this way. This is us. One side of us.

Jack Markowitz writes on Thursdays. Email

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