For her second feature length documentary, photojournalist Lauren Greenfield turned her sights to a house and a pair of personalities far to big to fit within any single frame of still photography. In The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield chronicles the day to day lives of David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire timeshare magnate and his former beauty queen wife, as they embark on building what was to become the largest privately owned home in the world. Together with their children, David and Jackie lived a fairly fast and loose life with their money until the 2008 market collapsed forced David to re-evaluate his family’s lifestyle. Jackie on the other hand, despite her good heart, often chooses to ignore the warning signs in favour of living life in her previously extravagant fashion. A woman brought up from nothing, Jackie simply can’t see people living without what she thinks they need.
Greenfield, who won the best director for a documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, sat down with Dork Shelf while she was in town for Hot Docs this past spring to talk about her relationship to the Siegels, her own views on wealth, and the challenge of making rich people sympathetic to mass audiences.
Dork Shelf: I know that when you first embarked on this project that you didn’t expect it was going to be a three year thing. Were you originally just wanting to focus on Jackie Siegel as a person first and foremost?
Lauren Greenfield: Well, I didn’t know how long it was going to be from the start, anyway. I went in without a real gameplan. Jackie and David had always said that the house wasn’t going to be done for a few years, so I was a little worried about that because I thought the structure of the film was going to revolve around the building of the house, but I kind of went in on faith without really knowing much. I kind of saw the house as a backdrop. You know, the construction, and the layout, and the planning, and that was going to be the real journey that was going to be in the foreground.
DS: It’s funny how the house starts off as a grand dream and becomes something more metaphorical as it goes on.
LG: Yeah! I don’t know if you know John Cooper, who’s the director of Sundance, but when he accepted the film I went to the cocktail party reception in LA for all the filmmakers and he introduced me to someone who said “In front of the house there’s a huge sign that says METAPHOR.” (laughs)
DS: It definitely takes on that connotation, but are you ever afraid of people getting the wrong connotation that you might be poking fun at these people outright, because it’s clearly not your intention.
LG: No, no! Actually, I felt like audiences have really understood the film, which I’ve been really happy about because as I was editing that wasn’t always the case. This was a Sundance Lab film and I went through many stages in editing where I started to get that feedback, and in the beginning – and this was before the footage was even done – people were laughing, but they were kind of poking fun and some of them didn’t really like the characters. That was never what I was trying to do, because there are aspects of their character that I really do like, and that I felt kind of showed this toughness and this survivor element that they both had, and in their flaws I also wanted the viewers to see themselves and the same mistakes that we all make that have a universal quality to it. It took a while to kind of come through, but I’ve actually been pleased with how audiences have been responding because a lot of audience have said that they feel very empathetic with the character and that they were surprised by it. They went in thinking one thing – “Oh, I’m never going to like Jackie. She’s this huge stereotype” – and then they feel really differently. For me as a director, that’s the journey that I really want people to go on. Go in thinking one thing and leave thinking another.
We just showed it in London at the first London Sundance, and the British love to laugh at America. They have a highly attuned sense of satire and social critique, and I expected them above any other audiences to just rip the Siegel’s to shreds, and they actually were unbelievably empathetic with them, even more than here. That may be because they have that class structure and they appreciated her plucky, unsnobby nature.
DS: And that also ties into this sort of preconceived notion that a lot of people have regarding North American wealth, and I’m sure that even when you were in the editing room with all this opulence around you that it can all be used greatly out of context in more biased hands.
LG: Yeah, totally. It could have been, but for me that wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting a project. For me the best part of the project was when the market crash happened and it all became an allegory about the overreaching of America, and it became this epic thing.
Back at the Sundance Lab, one of my mentors was talking about Shakespearian references and Citizen Kane references and I realized that the bigger it got, the more symbolic of a tragedy it could be. You didn’t have to relate to them as peers, and I think that at the beginning I bring that back a bit before letting them be who they are in all their bigness and extravagance, and in a weird way the transition becomes more dramatic at that point.
You asked about my own views on wealth, and I actually kind of identify with a lot of things the Siegel’s are going through, which sounds strange because I’m a middle class person, but during the boom my husband and I took out an equity loan that was as big as the price of our house, and we made a garden with a giant fire pit and outdoor couches, and that’s something that I would NEVER do now.
I’ve been to CostCo a lot more lately and all of a sudden my shopping cart is always full of these huge, high volume things that I don’t need. So in the film, when Jackie goes to Walmart to buy Christmas presents she can’t afford – even though that’s taking it a little bit more into the realm of madness – it still speaks to that addiction that does exist in this consumer culture, and it’s a thing that I still feel. I’ll be in a mall and I’ll feel this magnetic drive to go into this shop I don’t need to be in, and I’m a rational, smart person. So I was trying to speak to those values and I don’t think it’s that interesting to do a critique of one family. That’s a really cheap shot, so I was more interested through their story how they fit into the values of American culture, and I think it works because they kind of represent both the best and the worst of us.
DS: When you went in were you surprised at how big hearted and kind Jackie would turn out to be?
LG: It was something that I had always felt when I was making it, but I couldn’t get it to come through for a while. I kept saying to my editor that there had to be a scene of her working with a charity, because that’s something that’s really, really important to Jackie. He turned to me and said “I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe her intention. I believe she’s doing it for her own gain.” And I had to say, “No, no, this is really important to her.”
I think there were things that I got just from knowing them that I knew were important, but it took a while to bring it out in the material and to be able to communicate it. But this was kind of why I wanted to do the project in the first place, because the first time I went to Jackie’s house was just to photograph her and I asked her what hotel nearby she could recommend, and she said to just stay at her house, and she didn’t even know me outside of the phone and a single photo shoot. I even had an assistant and she said that we could both stay there, and my LA assistant started sending us Google aerial maps of the house and it just looks like an island. The existing house was 26,000 square feet and it has three guest houses, so I just said “Well, I guess there’s room for us!” (laughs) It was just unusual that she was so open hearted and that was the thing right from the beginning. I just saw this as a really unique window into wealth, but the kind of wealth that’s expressed in the same way of an ordinary American. This wasn’t family money or a snobby, social status wealth.
I had been working on this photo project for several years about wealth and I always said that it wasn’t about wealthy people, but how we hold that as a value. It’s kind of like what Fran Lebowitz says that people don’t hate the rich because they could just as easily be that. And the thing is that they also have friends and family members who are from across the economic spectrum and they’re always involved in their lives, and one of the things I was drawn to from the beginning was this cross-cultural extended family in the home. The nannies from the Philippines and South America; that kind of Upstairs/Downstairs structure.
DS: As the film goes on and David started to have more and more problems to deal with was it harder to get access to him?
LG: Well, yes and no. In some ways he was just so worried with his own concerns that I was really the least of his worries, so he wasn’t always paying that much attention to me. In a way I was in the same boat as Jackie and the kids, except there were always exceptions. Like the kids’ baseball games. He would never miss those or anything with the kids, but he was definitely in his own world. He would come home from work and go into that room and just take meals in there.
DS: Was it hard to watch someone that you’ve become so close to go into such a descent or were you able to distance yourself from that?
LG: Well, close is a relative term, because David does his own thing and I always had more of a girlfriend closeness with Jackie. I would say that David and I had a respectful distance and I really honoured and appreciated his time, especially for the interviews. He would sit down with me – and he would complain about it sometimes – but he would do it and answer the questions by being direct and vulnerable. In a way, I think I felt closer to him as we went on, because in his regular life he’s not very available.
I was pretty surprised and moved seeing his transformation. I did five interviews, and one of the things that I figured out at Sundance Lab was that the interviews should always be treated like verite footage, but they weren’t just about the intonation, but it was about everything that was going on. In the interviews there’s a physical transformation in David that goes beyond the years that I filmed if you look at it. He was so tired, so defeated, and it was kind of shocking to see that. Although I did notice on my very last trip, which was more a wrapping up trip and not so much a shooting trip, and it was after they had lost the Las Vegas building and it was the one time that David said he didn’t want to be interviewed and Jackie said he was in mourning, he seemed to have a lightness. It was like the weight of Vegas had abated. When he described it all to his son, he just said that it was like it was on life support and he just pulled the plug. It was like if you were nursing someone near to you that’s in pain and dying, and they pass away and you have this strange sense of relief.
DS: It’s also interesting how the movie has to strike the balance between the different kinds of providing that Jackie and David do for the family, especially since Jackie is really trying to hang on to this old way of spending because she’s grown so accustomed to it. It’s like they have two different takes on what the American dream should be.
LG: Yeah, and that was interesting because about midway though I realized that their relationship and their love was sort of the heart of the story. Then to see the kind of he said/she said thing where they had different perceptions of what was going on was great because it ultimately paid off when she said that she really had no idea what was going on and that I probably knew more than she did because of how much time I had spent with David. She was always afraid to ask him what was going on.
DS: Have David and Jackie seen the film?
LG: Jackie came to Sundance and that was the first time she had seen it. It was the opening night film of Sundance, so there were about a thousand people in the audience and Robert Redford introducing it, so I think that was kind of the perfect way for her to see it. She bowed and blew kisses to the audiences and did the red carpet. She laughed at a lot of the stuff, sometimes in advance of the audience because she just knew what was coming, but she was also sad at times. She was sad when she saw Vegas and I think she was thinking about what that would be like for David. Ultimately, she’s been very supportive of the film.
David has more mixed feelings. David laughed a lot, more than I expected, but he doesn’t like the ending. He doesn’t like seeing the Westgate sign going off. After he gave up Vegas, they restructured and they’re now working on coming back, so I think David would’ve liked for me to continue for five more years to do The Return of Westgate. (laughs)