It’s your birthday. You want to celebrate in the best possible way. So you arrange a party at the top floor of the Gherkin, with Girls Aloud playing a set. Oh, and it won’t cost you a penny – your employer is footing the bill, as it’s being classed as an industry event.
Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? But it happened, to celebrate the birthday of a big name in the mortgage market back before the credit crunch hit. I started in financial journalism in 2007, a year or so after this particular shindig, but it wasn’t that unique.
There was the invite to be flown down to a day at the races in Cheltenham by helicopter, the three-day ‘summit’ in Monte Carlo, the all-afternoon (and sometimes evening) lunches in London’s best restaurants. Nobody batted an eyelid.
That almost innocent attitude towards the most excessive of spending dominates the first half of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, which follows billionaire David Siegel and his family as they attempt to build the largest single-family home in America.
It’s fair to say that, at the outset, none of the protagonists are that likeable. David Siegel is, genuinely, one of the most loathsome figures in a film that I’ve ever seen, a man able to say with a straight face that all of the people in his life are better off as a result of knowing him.
His wife, Jackie, doesn’t fare much better. An engineer turned beauty queen, she totters around talking the viewers through her grand ideas for the new home, inspired by the palace of Versailles. If you manage to tear your eyes away from her ridiculously oversized boobs, you subject yourself to having to hear her prattle on about how much this chair cost, or how the home is going to have its own spa and bowling alley.
This is a woman who lives to spend.
Both are asked separately why they are building such a vast home, and the answers are very telling. Jackie says that her husband has worked very hard to be worth so much money and so deserves the largest home in America, like it’s some sort of reward. David’s answer is much more succinct: “Because I can.”
Worst of all though is the look behind the scenes at Siegel’s timeshare business. We get to see David’s son, Richard, giving the sales team a pep talk which is genuinely beyond belief. I’ve worked with some bullshitting salesmen in my time – hell, my dad’s an estate agent – but this guy was something else, emphasising that by selling timeshares they were saving lives as people that go on holiday more often are less likely to suffer serious illness.
The contrast with the family’s home help, a collection of Asian nannies and housekeepers, tells its own heart-breaking story, particularly the nanny who hasn’t seen her child in two decades, instead having to work thousands of miles from home in order to send money back.
Her living quarters? A giant dolls house that the Siegel children no longer want.
Then the credit crunch hits. And it all goes to hell.
Suddenly the cheap credit that had been the foundation of Siegel’s business isn’t there anymore. Thousands of staff are made redundant, the purse strings are tightened, and the Siegels are forced to put their unfinished dream home on the market.
The way they deal with this situation is fascinating. David becomes a recluse, locking himself away in his office or study, desperately trying to find backers for his Las Vegas project. His disdain for those around him, his wife, his children, grows by the minute. Suddenly the cost of the trophy wife and family seems a little steep.
In contrast, Jackie goes on something of a journey. She flies economy class to visit friends and family she hasn’t seen in years, goes back to her roots to reconnect with where she came from.
She begins to realise that the crazy spending of the past is over, and while she has an awful lot of trouble adapting to her new financial realities, you can see she has a good heart and wants to help both the family she loves and those former employees who are suffering as a result of her husband’s greed and ambition. The tension when they are on screen together is compelling viewing.
I spoke with countless Davids and Jackies in the days and months after the credit crunch hit. Plenty of businesses whose models were now entirely obsolete reassured me that they’d be back, they just needed to sort out some funding. I don’t hear from them anymore.
I do hear from the Jackies though. The firms that got caught up in the world of easy money, who have had their fingers burned and learned a few lessons. There’s still plenty of lavish spending going on, but there aren’t too many birthday parties on the top floor of London monuments this days.
The Queen of Versailles is an excellent documentary, almost by accident, a fluke of timing. It’s also the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen of the madness that led to the financial crisis in the first place.
The Queen of Versailles is BBC4 at 10pm on Monday 28th January, and released on DVD the same day.