Photographer Lauren Greenfield lucked out with "Queen of Versailles," her second feature documentary. Her instincts drew her to forge a connection at a 2007 party with billionaire trophy wife Jackie Siegel, one of Versace's best customers, and to follow her around with a camera. (One photo of her blingy gold and silver purses was one of Time's pictures of the year.)
Greenfield had no idea that this gregarious silicone-busty blonde with seven children–whose Florida real estate mogul husband David was building a 90,000-square-foot Versailles, the biggest house in America, the embodiment of the American Dream–was about to hit the 2008 financial crisis skids. "I was intrigued by their wealth and lifestyle," says Greenfield in a phone interview. "It had a fantasy quality. She had an accessible, down to earth and open personality, which was unusual for a rich person."
Initially Greenfield, who had directed HBO's "Thin," thought she was doing an Upstairs/Downstairs portrait of 1% supersized wealth run amuck, from private jets and limos to servants and hangers-on. That's how it starts. But the final movie, funded by Danish money and the BBC and buttressed by a Sundance Institute Lab, is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of the "riches to rags" slide of an American family. Like a train wreck, it is compulsively watchable, and it reveals much about what's wrong with our sick nation.
Siegel's husband, Westgate Resorts timeshare king David Siegel, was so angered by the film's Sundance press materials–which cited his own "riches to rags"quote–that he filed a law suit before Sundance in January. Lawyer Marty Garbus is repping the filmmakers. "None of us think there's any merit to it," says Greenfield, who remains on good terms with Jackie. Despite Greenfield's unflattering portrait, her subject was happy to go to Sundance and subsequent festivals to promote the film. A Sundance hit, the doc was instantly scooped up by Magnolia, which opens it Friday, armed with rave reviews.
Greenfield's cameras kept rolling for ten weeks over three years. Once the 2008 recession hit, she saw that her film was turning into a "morality tale about overreaching," she recalls. "I had a relatively small crew: a director of photography, sound and field producer. As four people we could completely blend in and become a fly on the wall in a house with 26,000 square feet." In fact, the house was so big that they could stay there overnight and create a base camp. When they went to visit Siegel's family home in Binghamton, New York they were reminded of how cramped an ordinary-scale house could be: "We were like bulls in a china shop."
Siegel is the narcissistic center of the film; when things get tough, she gets a face peel. "She's a lot of paradoxes," explains Greenfield, who remains fond of her. "She's not white trash. She's really smart, comes from the lower middle class." After earning a degree in engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, "she realized that her beauty would get her farther where she wanted to go than her engineering degree. She played into her choices. She lived in an infrastructure that gave her millions of dollars. The spigot got cut off."
With servant support reduced from 15 to one housekeeper, Siegel is revealed as a disorganized and overwhelmed mother of seven children who can barely cook, as pets die and dog poop litters the floors. Knowing these reduced circumstances, Siegel admits, "she never would have had so many children. She likes people, has a warm heart, has fun with the kids. Domestic skills are not her strong point."
Despite all the friction and tension between David and Jackie Siegel in the film, "they are still together," says Greenfield. Siegel almost took his business to the brink, but is fighting his way back to solvency. "David personally signed for everything, he could come back or be a pauper." And he remains determined to keep and build their Versailles, which is still on the market– marked down to $65 million.