Lessons learned from “The Queen of Versailles”

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David and Jackie Siegal in “Queen of Versailles” (All images courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

While Lauren Greenfield has been using photography to explore the sociology of American life for 20 years, it turns out that one of her pivotal pictures was of a handbag.

Greenfield, who was working on a project about wealth and consumerism and the American Dream, found herself at a Donatella Versace event in Beverly Hills, where she met one of the designers biggest customers, a woman called Jackie Siegal.

“And I made a photograph of her purse and two other purses, very gold, very blingy purses, that Time Magazine used in their photos of the year to illustrate what they were calling the New Gilded Age” said Greenfield. “This was in the end of 2007. And when Jackie told me they were building the biggest house in America I was hooked.”

greenfield1.jpgIt turned out that Siegal, and her husband David, the president of the largest time-share organization in the world, were in the process of building a huge edifice on a large lot in Orlando Fl. using a design based on the palace of Versailles in Paris, and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas

Greenfield (right) asked if she could make a film about the house, and the Siegals agreed.

Greenfield says she was interested in the way that homes had become not just a place to live, but a symbol of success and identity. During the real estate boom a few years ago the Siegals took the phenomenon to new heights.

They decided they needed more space, and designed their 90,000 square foot dream home, complete with grand staircase and stained glass domed roof. Even as builders worked on putting up the walls the building was eye-popping.

However Greenfield soon saw her film would revolve round Jackie. She’s a woman who had survived a hard-scrabble upbringing, and a bad first marriage to become a beauty queen and then wife of a billionaire 30 years her senior. At times she is quite humble, and at others wildly ostentatious. She relates how she never wanted to have many children, but when she married David she knew she didn’t need to worry about money, so she had seven, and then had a troubled teenage niece move in too.

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Jackie Siegal and some of her children in “Queen of Versailles”

The film crew got to follow Jackie as she purchased truckloads of furnishings for the uncompleted house. It was a garish mixture of valuable antiques and 21st century knick-knacks where volume was as important as quality. She also took the crew on tours of the cavernous skeleton of the house as work continued, pointing out her enormous closet which a friend mistakes for a bedroom. There is even a special balcony designed so the family can watch the nightly fireworks over Disney World.

Then the real estate bubble burst, and Lauren Greenfield found herself making a very different film.

Work stopped on the house, David laid off thousands of workers in the time-share business, and the giant Siegal household had to downsize. Things got so tight, David realized he had to sell Versailles

“In 2010 when they had to put their house on the market, when Jackie and David had to put their dream house of Versailles up for sale and had to give up that dream, at that point I realized that their story was really an allegory for the overreaching of America, and a supersized version of what so many people had gone through,” said Greenfield.

“The Queen of Versailles” follows the Siegals increasingly desperate attempts to stay above water. Because the Siegals are so open, and in many ways like the family next door, Greenfield found she could relate to the family’s troubles.

“It begins as something you might take vicarious pleasure in,” said Greenfield. “And by the end you realize its the story that happened to all of us and when David says no-one is without guilt, this is a vicious cycle, we can all put ourselves in that place too, whether it’s spending too much on your credit cards or using our homes as piggy banks.”

She describes it as the hardest project she has ever done, but now the film is done, and has been drawing great critical attention, Greenfield says it’s been worth it.

“Making a documentary is kind of an existential experience in that you don’t really know if it will see the light of day and if anyone will care,” she said. “And so to have a documentary being released in the theaters is a filmmakers dream, and the fact that it opened Sundance is a huge honor for me.”

Of course the story isn’t done. The house went into foreclosure, but since the film was completed David found a way to get it out. He says he still intends to finish it, even though it will take $30 million more to do that.

“It does seem, in the post-crash world, it seems very ambitious to the point of irrationality to finish the house,” says Greenfield.

Meanwhile David Siegal is suing Greenfield for defamation, even as Jackie is making publicity appearances on behalf of the film.

“Despite the lawsuit,” she said “I am very very grateful to the Siegals for the access that they gave me and the candor with which they shared their lives.”

“They are at once completely outsized and in a fantasy, and at the same time strangely familiar and even down to earth in a crazy way. That is the contradiction of the American dream.”

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