Hostages to fortune
Jackie and David Siegel, the King and Queen of Versailles
“I’ve spent 25 years shooting the wealthy, but it was only when the 2008 crash happened that I started seeing the connections between a lot of the stories and how they were part of one long narrative. The Queen of Versailles [Greenfield’s acclaimed 2012 documentary on Jackie and David Siegel] brought together so many themes and ideas.
David was a billionaire when we first met, having made a fortune selling timeshares. Jackie, his wife, spent more than $1 million a year shopping and together they had started the ambitious project of building Versailles, the biggest house in America.”
“In many ways, the Siegel couple embodied the quintessential American dream. They both had rags-to-riches stories and represented everything we are told about making it in America. You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be affected by this culture of chasing wealth and I think that’s part of what this project is about. Our exposure to the ‘more, more, more’ lifestyle is changing all levels of society. We don’t have to have been living that life to be affected; it can be enough for us to just get glimpses of it. We saw during the boom – when people were essentially given free money on credit – what people wanted. It was designer goods, it was bigger houses, it was luxury timeshares, it was more of everything.
The Siegels were perhaps the biggest example of this phenomenon. But when the crash happened, they fell hard. The timeshares David sold were based on people having access to credit. Despite initially owning his houses and buildings, he borrowed money against them to expand his business and build Versailles. And then suddenly people couldn’t pay their debts on his timeshares and he couldn’t pay the bank. He lost his fortune, along with the $600 million timeshare his company had built in Las Vegas that was the pinnacle of his career. I realised that if even the Siegels can lose so much, this dividing line between the one percent and the rest of us isn’t as clear as I’d thought.
I spent seven years making The Queen of Versailles and by the end of filming David seemed humbled; he seemed to have learned a lesson. He said he bought too big, that no one is without guilt, and saw his own complicity in the global crash. It was so powerful for me to hear him say this, because for most of the time I shot him he did not think he had anything to do with the crash. He’d argue that it was the bankers and the lenders, so for him to say that he should have been happy with fewer things was fantastic. But then after the movie was finished he went back to his old life. His company was able to get financing again and he was able to borrow the money to get Versailles back. He still wants to build the biggest house in America; it’s like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill.”
Xue Qiwen, the golfing CEO
“I shot Xue, or Yvonne as she likes to be called, six times between 2000 and 2016. I loved being in China. It was like a blank slate, where revolution had tried to level class and a lot of things, like golf, were not permitted. When they allowed a limited form of capitalism, people grabbed on to luxury living with a fascinating combination of ferociousness and naivety. They have etiquette classes for the wealthy where people pay $16,000 for a 12-day course on napkin folding, the correct way to eat fruit and the proper pronunciation of foreign luxury brands such as Givenchy. To witness people studying to be rich was funny, because it’s an honest expression of something that is usually buried. People in the West who come into money act like they’ve always had it.
Yvonne has embraced luxury. She got divorced in her early twenties and needed to work to support herself and her daughter. She started her own company and is on the board of three others. Golf is now the ultimate status symbol for Chinese businesspeople. It costs up to $100,000 to become a member of a club in China, before you even get to hit a ball. Yvonne belongs to three.
She loves designer clothes and looking a million bucks, but she’s also a serious businesswoman. None of her businesses could be described as glamorous. She mostly makes plastic packaging – I love the idea that anybody can achieve that status through making what we in the West would consider trash.”
Florian Homm, the hedge-fund manager wanted by the FBI
“If there’s a moral to the story I’ve been telling during this project, then Florian Homm embodies it. I knew him at Harvard and he was one of the only people with a convertible car. He let me borrow it when I was making my first film.
The next time I saw him was in a photo for an article about him being on the FBI’s most wanted list. He had made a personal fortune of over $800 million, but was accused of defrauding investors in the process.
The case never went to trial and he’s still a fugitive in the US. He lives in Germany, which doesn’t have an extradition agreement with America. He still lives in fear – he had a $1.9 million bounty placed on his head by angry investors and has already survived one assassination attempt.
I photographed him in a Berlin brothel as well as a hotel in Germany that used to be a castle, a place he spent a lot of time in when he was little. He talked about reaching the heights but losing his family and himself in the process. He took 300 business calls a day and he spoke about the addictive quality of making and spending money – but also the absurdity. He said that he owned places he had never even been to. He had an affair with a table dancer and was disowned by his wife and father, and he has little contact with his children who live in the US. He eventually realised what he had lost and came to the conclusion that he was chasing the devil, and there’s no satisfaction to be found there.
Florian is trying to redeem himself – he has found religion, he does charity work and he is trying to encourage socially responsible investing. When I interviewed his son, he felt unsure whether his father had really changed. The same could be said of the system. Many of the financial insiders I met have predicted another painful bust, because we continue on what Florian calls the ‘diamond-studded hamster wheel’ of consumption and debt.”
Future, the ‘Fake it till you make it’ rapper
“Florian Homm talked to me about how the American value system changed under Ronald Reagan – it didn’t matter who you were, just what you were worth. Magic City – the Atlanta, Georgia club where Future, who is now one of the biggest rappers in America, made his name – would seem to support that view.
It’s kind of a mythical place, a strip club the manager describes as the ‘black Cheers’, a place where everyone knows your name. It’s also a place where dreams are made. The girls are considered high-class socialites, so there’s no stigma to sex work – if you’re making enough money, that’s all that matters. It’s the total commodification of human beings. And it’s not just women, because the rappers are in the same boat. One of the girls described it to me as ‘Everybody’s got their trap’ – which is slang for a place where a drug deal is done. So whether it’s your body or drugs or rap, it’s what you have to leverage to make money.
Future – who was born Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn – grew up in awe of drug dealers like his uncles, but after one of them was arrested he decided to become a rapper and Magic City was his launchpad. If the DJ plays your music and the strippers like it, it gets played more and more. If it’s played in the club regularly, it goes on the radio. If it gets to the radio, it goes national. So strippers are the A&R department at the start of the chain.
The way that you get strippers excited to hear your song is to throw money up in the air – or ‘make it rain’ when your song is playing. Other people in the crowd join in, throwing their money up in the air and so on. So Future said he would come to the club and throw his last $500 in the air. He was sleeping on people’s floors, with not enough money for food, but in the club he acted like he was a king. It was ‘fake it till you make it’, and it worked – he now lives the life he always wanted in Beverly Hills. At the same time as I was shooting him, I was also shooting people who had nothing and in all likelihood will not become a Future, but who are also throwing the last of their money in the air.
Magic City and Versailles are allegories of where we are: live for today; all that matters is how you look. I was left with this feeling that we are all still borrowing money we don’t have to spend on stuff we don’t need – we are all still dancing on the deck of the Titanic.”
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