Those who have seen Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about Jackie and David Siegel’s tumble from riches to rags like to recall their favourite scene.
Perhaps it is the one in which the newly-impoverished Jackie, renting a car at an airport, innocently asks the agent “what’s the name of my driver?” Or maybe they enjoyed watching the Siegels, having laid off their household staff, learn to their amazement that untended dogs leave poop on the living room floor.
But the scene that stayed with me is the one in which Jackie informs her three eldest children that because the family is now poor “you’ll have to go to college.” Yup. That’s probably the worst prospect Jackie can imagine. Not only having to work, but being required to think.
There’s a puzzle here. For it turns out that Jackie, a woman in desperate need of a breast reduction and a brain augmentation, actually went to college. And got a degree in (gasp!) “computer engineering”, a discipline that, one might think, requires more than a dash of the old intellectual razzle-dazzle.
But no. Those days are long past and Jackie Siegel has since made a large down payment on a piece of the American dream. Not the dream of America’s founders, you understand. Jefferson and his friends envisioned a democracy founded on law, not wealth. But modern American dreamers view their country as a plutocracy nourished by the principle that anyone can and should be rich.
And if you are not, then it’s your fault.
That sums up the dilemma confronting the Siegels when the economic crash of 2008 ravages David’s wildly successful vacation home time-share business (which, ironically, takes thousands of dollars from the impecunious and gives them one week a year in an apartment by the sea). The Siegels, no longer rich, are not only short on cash, but guilty of betraying a sacred principle. Hence the punishment inherited in true biblical sense by the next generation — you have to go to college.
So much for the kids. Jackie and David themselves manage to wriggle out of their guilt by a ruse that would impress the most cynical of dream salesmen: even if you are not rich, act as if you are. That means:
- refusing to sell their half-built dream home, a 90,000 square foot mansion with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens and a ballroom, inspired by a visit to France’s King Louis XIV’s opulent palace of Versailles;
- taking a chauffeur-driven limousine to MacDonald’s to pick up a dinner of chicken nuggets;
- buying three shopping cart loads of toys for the children’s Christmas;
- throwing a lavish Christmas bash for friends and neighbours — a party at which a befuddled David wanders about wondering why Jackie did not hire a barman;
- forking out ready cash for botox treatments;
- hanging on to Jackie’s collection of expensive, but garish, purses and furs
When not spending money they don’t have, Jackie and David hang about their current house (not 90,000 square feet, but a palace by any other standard), Jackie shepherding and nagging the eight children, David, surrounded by piles of paper, trying to find someone who will lend him a million dollars so that he can stop the bank’s foreclosure on the derelict monster mansion, a half-built, likely never-to-be-finished Versailles.