Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield had already spent a long career exploring the ideas behind our relationship with materialism and consumerism before her fourth doc, The Queen of Versailles, stormed this year’s Sundance. Around the time of the financial crisis, Greenfield started shooting a film on David and Jackie Siegel, he the billionaire owner of time-share giant Westgate Resorts, she his unusually likable trophy wife. Together, they planned to build the largest American home, based on—and called—the Palace of Versailles. When Westgate began suffering like most frivolous businesses post-2008, Greenfield was there to film their near-downfall. It’s not a pretty picture, which is one reason why David filed a lawsuit against Greenfield for defamation of character. Greenfield spoke with PW over the phone about how her relationship with them—or at least with Jackie—was rosier than such headline-grabbing instances would have you think.
How does The Queen of Versailles fit into your past work?
I’ve been making work on consumerism for the last two decades. I started on my first book, Fast Forward, in the early ’90s. It was about growing up in L.A. and how kids are affected by the culture of materialism. The Queen of Versailles came out of a look into wealth. It really zeroes in on this one family and examines the financial crisis through this single story.
How did you convince the Siegels to participate? Were they reluctant?
No. Jackie was with me here [in New York City] yesterday. We did the “Today” show together, and she was at the premiere last night at the Museum of Modern Art. Somebody asked her, ‘Did you ever have any reservations about the film?’ And she said, ‘No.’ [Laughs] Jackie was always really game. They were really proud of their project to build the biggest house in America and were very public people. As the film progresses, our relationship is much more intimate. They become much more real by the end: Jackie’s not wearing any makeup, I’m filming her washing her face with a dermatological treatment. David also becomes more and more vulnerable, and has an incredible candor that feels very different than the first interview, where he’s very boastful. They were very generous from the start, but our access to them only deepened when things got bad.
What initially interested you in them as subjects, apart from the Versailles angle? They don’t seem to be stereotypically wealthy people, and Jackie doesn’t come off like the typical trophy wife.
That’s exactly what attracted me to them. They had this openness and generosity and a down-to-earth quality. You don’t see that often with rich people. I felt she was a relatable person who could give us this inside view of wealth. She represented the American Dream, and they were both hard-working couples. To see this house is what they wanted when they made money was really interesting. And Jackie and David are both survivors. They’re both adaptable, and we find out different things from both of them. From Jackie, you discover she doesn’t care about the material stuff as much as you thought in the beginning, or that she comes to that belief through this experience. By the end, she’s reaching out to David, wanting his acceptance, wanting his love. David, I think, falls back on his core identity, which is a workaholic. The irony, of course, is he runs a vacation business and never takes a vacation.
How was this different from your past work, and how does documentary filmmaking compare to photography?
I think this was the most challenging project I’ve ever done. This is my fourth film and my second feature-length film, and the first in which I was able to bring my photographic voice into the film. I haven’t really done that in earlier films. You can really see the relationship between my photographic voice and the intimacy. The parts that are different are the developments over time. I had to consider character development and story development, and how the huge changes over time affect their lives.
Read our review of "Queen of Versailles" here.
A 90,000-square-foot monstrosity modeled after the French palace of the title, complete with a view of Disney World, this monolithic structure stalled out in Florida (where else?) somewhere a good deal short of its $100 million price tag.