What stuck with me the most after reading Joe Nocera’s New York Times piece about Lauren Greenfield and her documentary The Queen of Versailles—arguably the most important documentary of the year—was her apparent guilt about revealing the subjects for who they really are. In case you haven’t read or heard, Greenfield’s film chronicles the Siegel family—worth a billion dollars and in the midst of building a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion—from 2009 to 2011, right in the teeth of the recent recession. Even more incredible, David Siegel made his fortunes through his timeshare company Westgate Resorts, which sells the majority of their timeshare properties to people who usually cannot afford them. They were cinematically perfect subjects for an examination of the over-consumptive top one-percent in America during a financial meltdown. Greenfield captures the Siegel family’s obliviousness, stubbornness, and gaudy repugnance with equally shocking, sad, and humorous grace, culminating in the loss of one of Westgate’s most prized business assets and the discounted, unfinished hotel-sized home being put up for sale. The film should be a lesson to all of us about wealth and irresponsibility and how history has, once again, repeated itself. Greenfield should be proud.
Yet she seems protective of the Siegels, that there may be some inner turmoil for leading all of us to their palace gates. Part of this may be strategy, due to the defamation lawsuit the still very wealthy and powerful David Siegel filed against Greenfield, among others, a week before The Queen of Versailles premiered at Sundance—even though his wife attended the screening and sat right beside the director. However, it’s these types of contradictions that may give insight into another source of the talented filmmaker’s guilt: are her subjects living metaphors for American overconsumption or just a specific case of filthy rich people who have lost all sense of reality? Greenfield and I chatted about the film in a large empty ballroom of a luxury hotel about how the film came together around her and why she cared what the Siegels ultimately thought.
So how did you end up working with the Siegels in the first place?
It really happened step-by-step, so it wasn’t like a grand plan. It started very serendipitously. I met Jackie at a party where I was photographing Donatella Versace. She was one of her best customers. While I was supposed to be following Donatella, I ended up photographing Jackie and her friends because they were so fabulous looking and they had these fabulous purses. I actually shot a picture of their purses that ended up in the Time Magazine Pictures of the Year. Through talking to her I learned she was building the biggest house in America. I had been photographing wealth and consumerism for a while by that point, and I actually didn’t even believe her at first.
When was this?
2007, actually. I just stayed in touch. I didn’t even begin filming until early 2009. But at that point they were people who didn’t seem like they would ever be affected by the crash. I went down and saw the house and fell in love with it and the characters. The thing about Jackie and David that was really appealing is that Jackie, in particular, had this down-to-earth American quality even though the lifestyle she was living was stratospheric—and also this openness and accessibility. At the beginning, I thought it would be this inside look at wealth and what it’s like to live the dream that a lot of Americans might want.
So you never had any idea this would become the story it became.
No, I didn’t even know what David’s business was in the beginning. Of course, the timeshare business did become really important because it became a symbol for the housing crisis. David was in the interesting position of being on both sides of that stick. He was selling property to people who couldn’t afford it, yet he was also building a home he couldn’t afford. It wasn’t until 2010, when they put the house on the market, that it became clear what the story really was. The mood in the house was different and it was clear the house was not going to be completed, at least not as planned. I suddenly realized that Jackie and David’s crisis was an allegory about the overreaching of America.
Did they welcome you and your crew in with open arms from the beginning, or was it a slow process?
We went back ten times over the course of three years, and they didn’t exactly welcome us with open arms. We had to earn their trust; we were feeling it out on both sides. I worked at the relationships and hoped we would earn the access to be invited back. I remember being very excited one trip when we left and David did a photoshoot the next day and wished we had been there, since we were “doing a story about [their] lives.” Jackie would also often be sad when we left. We really became a part of it.
It seems like they didn’t like the film at the end of the day—at least, I’m assuming that because of the lawsuit. Did they expect the film to portray them in a positive light?
Jackie actually really likes the film, I was just with her in Silverdocs a few weeks ago.
So she’s still going to festivals with you?
Yeah, she went tom Silverdocs, she went to Sarasota, she wanted to go to L.A. and San Francisco.
Even though David sued you guys?
Is it awkward with her there, sitting beside you?
Um, I remain very close to Jackie, and I think that the other parts are really about business. It started before David even saw the film.
And has he seen it yet?
And what did he think?
You’d have to ask him. But I think from a business point of view, he’d like a different ending.
Do you think lessons have been learned? When the economy fully turns around, will we go back to the same things? And have the Siegels learned lessons in their own world?
That’s sort of why I ended the film where I did. It starts with the dream and it ends with the failure of that dream. If Westgate goes on to be successful, more power to them, but that’s not the story of the film. The story of the film is this lesson. David even speaks to this in the end, about getting back to reality, how he could have lived with less resorts and none of this would have ever happened. If we can learn from that—I don’t know, I think we’ll see. We’re dealing with human greed, our want to go bigger and bigger, and confusing our wants with our needs.
You mentioned you were close to Jackie. Do you think she has—or will—change her ways?
What I love about her is that her flaws show us our own flaws. When she decides to go to WalMart to shop, it seems like she has learned her lesson because she’s downsizing instead of buying designer. Yet we see in that scene that addiction to consumerism, which to me is really a scene about madness. But I’ve done the same thing myself in Costco when I’ve grabbed things I don’t need because it’s a good price. I talked to Jackie a few weeks ago when she was on a vacation with her kids. I asked her if she was downsizing and she said, “Kind of, but I stopped at Saks in New York and went to the Chanel boutique.”
In Nocera’s recent piece in The New York Times, he implied that you didn’t want to upset them, that you felt bad that they didn’t like the film. If that’s true, though, why do you care what they think?
For the record, not everything in that piece was factually accurate. It’s an interesting situation though. I spent three years with the family and I became close to them personally. I’m always in my work operating on two levels, and I’m always getting close to my subjects and showing their point of view. By seeing their point of view, it helped me to make a more empathetic and compassionate movie. I think that when people see the movie, it’s not black and white and they’ll see these are not bad people. They’re people who made mistakes and their mistakes mirror our mistakes. So I think it is humanizing. In terms of how the subjects think of the finished movie, it’s par for the course. It comes with the territory. I can’t make or edit a movie thinking about what people will like. But I’m happy Jackie likes the film and that she wants to continue to go to festivals, and I understand for David it is about business and that it’s a tough pill to swallow to see the loss the family went through up on the screen.