As soon as she met Jackie Siegel, director Lauren Greenfield knew the buxom and Botoxed former pageant queen must be a subject for her lens. Greenfield had been photographing Donatella Versace for Elle magazine at the opening of the designer’s new store when she was struck by a gregarious woman who turned out to be one of Versace’s best customers. “Jackie has this open, generous quality that you don’t often see in [people with] great wealth, and also a kind of down-to-earth quality where she’s like the girl next door,” says Greenfield. “You can just get to know her–even though she’s a billionaire building the biggest house in America.”
That house and the story of its downward spiral into dog poo-dotted disrepair is the basis of The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield’s documentary about Siegel, her husband David and, by extension, the collapse of the subprime mortgage system. When the economic crisis hits in 2008, Westgate Resorts–David Siegel’s time-share company that seduces middle class families with luxury vacations–falters when its customers can’t keep up with their payments. Westgate lays off 6,000 employees and construction halts on the biggest house in America.
Greenfield’s photography tends to focus on beauty, wealth, and consumerism. Her work hangs in museums and galleries across the country and has appeared in major magazines, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Fast Company, which commissioned her in 2009 to shoot “Off the Deep End: A Look at the Decline of Dubai,” a project Greenfield sees as “paralleling and foreshadowing” The Queen of Versailles. “It’s a similar morality tale,” says Greenfield, who bristles at the suggestion that her chronicle of the gaudily rich is akin to reality TV and schadenfreude fests like The Real Housewives series. “I don’t think there’s anything in common between this and reality TV,” Greenfield plainly states. “I think part of what this work is about is looking at the implications of our obsession and idealization of wealth–and the consequences of that. The fact that we obsessively watch hours and hours of rich people on TV and think that’s a cool way of life is, I think, an important aspect of our culture to look into.”
Reality TV may offer no insight, but Greenfield’s film does. Witness the Siegels’ niece and adoptive daughter, Jonquil, who comes from a broken home and extreme misfortune to live amidst the Siegels’ extreme wealth. In the movie, she has a poignant moment of reflection on how wealth has changed her: “I used to see rich people on TV and think that if my life was like that I would wake up with a smile on my face every day. But now that I have it all, I see that you get used to it and you just want more and more.”
Explains Greenfield: “I’ve often used the extremes in my work to comment on the mainstream. I think that sometimes a subject that I’m working on, like popular culture, is so present all around us that they’re hard to see. It’s like: How do you see the air you breathe? How do you see how it affects you? Often I looked at the extremes to be able to see those things.”
Here, Greenfield explains how she builds intimacy with her subjects to create a documentary that’s at once a personal portrait and a society-wide chronicle.
“One thing about Jackie is she was always equally comfortable with Versace and with caviar and with McDonald’s, and she enjoyed them equally,” says Greenfield, using the past tense because Siegel’s circumstances have shifted. “The contradiction between living this kind of stratospheric fantasy life and being a real down-to-earth person was one of the things that drew me to her in the beginning.”
The fascinating thing about Jackie Siegel is her utter lack of pretension–though there’s also her seven kids, her self-made billionaire husband and her humble origins. “She doesn’t have social airs,” says Greenfield. “She doesn’t use her money to be better than other people. So in a way there was something very endearing and heartwarming about her even though, at the same time, she kind of shows our flaws and shows our excess.” In other words, Siegel quickly proved to be the perfect subject.
“When I first moved from photography to filmmaking, I was worried about how big I had to become. I was one person, or maybe me and an assistant, and I had these small cameras, and maybe a flash. In filmmaking, all of a sudden we were three people or four people and I had these big cameras and a big sound boom and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’ll never fit.’ But what I’ve learned in my photography is that it’s really not about your size, either of your camera or of your crew, it’s about the relationships you create and getting people comfortable. I mean, I learned that a long time ago.” On one of her early photo shoots, Greenfield panicked, imagining she needed the sleekest, smallest, least conspicuous equipment. “I learned that it wasn’t about that at all, that if you have the relationship you actually can have a big camera and use flash. It’s [about] allowing people to accept your presence and go on living their lives. And the way I’ve done that in both photography and filmmaking is by spending a lot of time. And with The Queen of Versailles one thing that also helped was working in a 26,000-square-foot house where we could be a five-person crew and still be a fly on the wall.”
Greenfield has been working in photography since the early 1990s but she’s relatively new to documentaries. Her first, Thin, about women and eating disorders, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. “The part that really translated right away from photography [to filmmaking] is an ability to get access and create relationships with people.” Indeed, you can see this across Greenfield’s work. You can feel the intimacy.
One thing Greenfield learned a long time ago in moving from filmmaking to photography is to keep her mouth shut because she’s recording sound. “When I’m photographing I’m talking a lot to my subjects and that conversation is part of how I get to know them. And when I’m filming, I get to talk to them in the interview and ask them questions, but when we’re doing verité I’m quiet. I think that my job is not to intervene, interject, judge, it’s to observe and document and then try to understand the point of view of the people and how they fit into a bigger picture, what they say about our culture at large.”
“I think that the reason we can identify with Jackie and David is because they are like us in a way. I always stop and think of Fran Lebowitz’s quote, ‘Americans don’t hate the rich, because they always imagine they will be rich someday, that they’re impending rich.’ And so I think that’s what’s behind that fascination with reality TV,” Greenfield theorizes. “I hope that fascination will make people want to see the movie and then I hope they’ll come out with something a little bit different.”
Part of the technique in Greenfield’s photos and docs is her use of the language of popular culture–the sexy bodies, the bright, saturated colors, the shiny, reflective prints. “And then once you get into the work it takes you to a different place and you see the more serious consequence of this kind of idealization.”
While viewers might walk away with criticisms of the Siegels, it’s not because Greenfield has been unduly harsh. Sure, the movie mines the Siegels’ wealth for humor (when Jackie rents a car at Hertz, she asks what the name of her driver will be), but The Queen of Versailles is surprisingly human and compassionate. And yet David Siegel is suing Greenfield for defaming his company, Westgate Resorts.
Interestingly it didn’t take much work to convince the Siegels to be the subjects of a documentary. “Jackie was on board immediately,” reports Greenfield. “And David, we had kind of a long conversation about it, and then he was on board. I think he was proud of the fact that they were building the biggest house in America and proud of his achievements, and I think he saw it as part of his legacy.”
Once they were in, Greenfield became close with the couple, but as always she maintained a certain remove. “You have these relationships with people that you care about, but I also try to stick to my job as filmmaker and be fair and truthful about what I saw and my experience of the people, hopefully informed by a deep understanding of them. I don’t go in and out, I spend a lot of time. I had the privilege of getting to know David and Jackie,” she says. “I wanted to show the things that I admired and respected about them as well as the flaws.”