Lauren Greenfield won the US Directing Award for Documentary Film at the 2012 Sundance Film for “Queen of Versailles” and it is easy to see why. Greenfield completely immersed herself in the lives of the spectacularly wealthy David and Jackie Siegel. The typical story of a rich older man and much younger trophy wife living a fabulous and hedonistic lifestyle is flipped on its head when the market crashes in 2008 and the couple loses a substantial amount of their wealth.
David’s timeshare company is frozen and the Siegels and their eight kids have to learn to live modestly, at least what they consider to be modest. Jackie and David’s marriage, the kids, the hired help, the company employees and extended family all pitch in to paint an incredible mural of what the American dream is and how the Siegel family both reached their peak and dealt with their downfall.
Greenfieldchatted with College Times about what it was like spending so much time with the Siegel family and then presenting them to the world.
College Times: How did you first hear about the Siegel family and what were your original intentions with the film?
Lauren Greenfield:I met Jackie while photographing Donatella Versace at a party in Beverly Hills and she was just one of her best customers. I took at picture of her purse – a gold, very bling-y purse – and two other purses. […] And then Jackie told me about building the biggest house in America and I was hooked.
I was interested in the connection between the ownership of the American dream and how the house had gotten bigger, more and more an expression of self and identity and excess. We were making a film about a family building the biggest house in America and Jackie was such an interesting character. She came from humble origins and had kind of down-to-earth quality and openheartedness even though she was living this life of fantasy completely outside the stratosphere life.
What was it like getting to know her and her family?
I loved it. I was really drawn to Jackie as a character and as a person. This was an inside look at wealth that we don’t see very often. Most of what we see of wealth is a very packaged, staged kind of reality show that’s aspirational and idolized. We don’t see what the day-to-day life of wealth is really like so I was interested even then, but then when their financial situation changed and essentially a year into the film making they put their house on the market, at that point I realized that their story was an allegory of the over reaching of America – a super-sized version of what I had seen all over the country and internationally as well.
Did you have to have a talk about continuing to film them?
Actually, no, they were incredible both in the access they have me and in their ability to live their lives without any consciousness of the cameras. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and they were really unusual and incredible in being themselves in front of the camera and so was their family. I think part of it is the house is so big that we can be a four person crew and not really make a dent in the atmosphere and still be a fly on the wall.
David was so involved in his work and his business I don’t think he was really thinking about us as much or it was so unimportant to him that he didn’t worry about it. The other thing about the family is that they were use to a lot of non-family members walking though the house, like domestic help, so they didn’t change their behavior because of the presence of cameras.
We talked frequently with both Jackie and David about how the story had changed and what the movie would be about. They never wavered on the access they gave because of the new situation. It’s a continuum. It happened over time and nobody knew when it was happening which way it would go.
What about the people outside of the immediate family?
What I didn’t realize and what became really compelling is how those stories really mirrored David and Jackie’s stories. The minor characters had these interpretations of the American dream that were equally aspirational and poignant and really spoke to our values as Americans in a really deep way too, [such as] the maid who left her children in the Philippines to get work in America and Chris the limo driver who buys 19 homes and goes into bankruptcy and foreclosure.
Did you feel protective of them?
I definitely did feel protective and that comes with three years of filming. I think what that made me want to do is show all the good qualities, as well, but not to idealize them. I think the power of them as characters is that their virtues and their flaws allow us to reflect on our own and also on the American dream. As I was editing I would show people, and at first people did not react well to the characters and that made me realize that the qualities I saw in them were not coming through. It really pushed me to find the humanity in the footage and the story.