Acclaimed documentary filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield (“THIN”) didn’t know what she was getting herself into when she approached billionaire Jackie Siegel (wife to timeshare titan David) at a party hosted by Donatella Versace. Greenfield’s initial intention was to photograph Jackie for a photographic work about wealth, consumerism and the American Dream. But as soon as Greenfield found out that the Siegel’s were in the midst of building the biggest home in America, she picked up her camera and began to document the family’s day-to-day routines.
Cut to five years later and the result of their time spent together, “The Queen of Versailles” (the Siegel’s modeled their new home on the Palace of Versailles), has a twist in the tale none of them could see coming — the family ended up in dire financial straits that are a result of the 2008 stock market collapse. What began as a study of unimaginable wealth became a timely expose on our current financial climate.
Ahead of its release this Friday in select theaters, Indiewire caught up with Greenfield to talk about the film’s remarkable journey, and figure out why the Siegel’s continued to let the cameras roll even when their world began to collapse.
You obviously didn’t know, going into this, the outcome of the situation — one which really gives your film a reason for being. What were your initial intentions in making this film?
I had been photographing a project about wealth. When I met Jackie, I was photographing Donatella Versace. She was out at a Versace party in Beverly Hills and she was one of Donatella’s best customers. At the time she was spending a million dollars a year on clothes, and she was building the biggest house in America. So I thought it would be a story about Jackie and her family with the background of building the biggest house in America.
Something was really appealing to me about Jackie: she was from humble origins and she was living this outsized kind of fantasy life. But in a way, it seemed a very American story because she had a relatable down-to-Earth quality, even though she was a billionaire. She was an unusual rich person. She didn’t have that protective veil of wealth, and she had a generosity of spirit that I thought was unusual and compelling and also let me in.
When I went to the house and saw that she had eight kids (including one she had adopted from poverty) and this array of domestic help from all different cultural backgrounds, I thought it was going to be an upstairs-downstairs story of Jackie and the house. I was captivated by the characters and the setting, but there wasn’t really a story per se.
How did you sell that approach to Jackie?
That it was a story about them and building the biggest house in America. I think the thing about Jackie and David is they know that they’re extraordinary people. It’s not like when you ask somebody if you can film them and they’re like, “Why me?” There was never any of that.
They both are very proud of their stories. David’s proud of his legacy. Building the biggest house is more about, “I built it because I can.” It’s an expression of his success. He’s proud of that success. And it’s more being able to do it than actually wanting to live in it. I think he cares about that less.
How long did you spend with the family over the course of this journey?
We were filming about ten trips. And each trip was usually between five and ten days.
It’s amazing that they continued to let you film as they their empire began to crumble. Why didn’t they stop you?
I think that really was the amazing thing and something that I was incredibly grateful for and felt very privileged to be a part of. In the beginning, in David’s first interview, he has a boastful air. I’m slightly intimidated by him while I’m filming and I brought in that first scene where I’m photographing them on the chair. You can see my relationship to them and the way they’re also posing for me. And then that breaks down over time and they become very candid.
I felt that in the interviews with David, you catch an unexpected candid quality from a man who often is very isolated at home in his man cave. And not somebody I would develop idle chatter with. I would set up this interview and gave him that respect and he would really reveal himself. I always felt privileged.
I always told the crew, “Shoot like it’s your last time,” because it was a risky thing, making a film about one family. And in a way, it had to be an independent film because you have to earn your access each time. You could never know what the future holds.
That said, Jackie was always very warm to me and the camera and there was nothing off-limits with her. But I think they also saw me enforcing their story on some level and how it reflected the American Dream and how that dream and those expectations were undermined by the economic crisis.
David very much fell victim to the banks. And it was only at the end where he faces his own culpability in that circle, that he says, “I was guilty of it too.” No one is above guilt. So I think they saw their story as important even when they were going through hard times. They did not feel that it reflected badly on them, but more that it was a reflection of the times.
I think, if anything, Jackie really shows her strength and her character as she goes through adversity. You think you know who she is in the beginning and you find out by the end that she’s a very different person and you like her a lot more. There was never any shame involved in what was going on.
They’ve no doubt seen the film, correct?
They’ve seen the film. Actually, it was at Sundance at the premiere.
What was going through your head while showing your film to the clan?
With Jackie, I was really scared of what she would think. She was the heart of the story for me and my entry point. So there was a lot of intimate stuff in the movie of her sitting there talking about her first marriage, her most recent one, and financial problems with David. But she really loved the film. She laughed a lot.
She also laughed ahead of the audience because she knew the story and knew what was going to happen. She has a good sense of humor. She laughed a lot in the making of the film. We were in Vegas shooting and someone said, “Oh is that your reality show?” And she said, “No I’m making an art film.” I think she gets it.
But she was also sad. She was sad in the very beginning when Vegas came on the screen. And so I think there’s things in there that make her sad too. She didn’t tell me how she felt when David said she’s a child in the movie. But I know that she felt like she was giving him a lot of support. I imagine it might have been a disappointment when he said that. The thing is, Jackie is also a tough cookie.
You and Jackie are clearly close. What was the toll on you as a filmmaker going on this journey with her?
It was definitely intense. As a documentarian, there’s always a mixture of empathy and sheer gratitude for the privilege to be there. You earn those moments. And I remember in my last film, “THIN,” there’s a devastating scene at the end where one of the characters, Molly, purges. I never thought I would ever film somebody purging, but it turned out to be important for the film and for that illness. So on one hand it’s the horror of what’s happening, and on the other hand you’re just grateful to be there and that they’re comfortable letting you film.
It was hard to see Jackie go through that scene where David is really barking at her. But it also spoke to what they were going through at the time and the stress that David was under. And for me, that scene makes them like a lot of people during the crash. They would be the first to say their situation is not that bad compared to what most people go through. But it also makes them identifiable in a way.
What do you have planned next?
I’m working on a book about wealth. It goes back 20 years in my work. It’s about consumerism and the cycle of boom and growth and how that’s also gone into the international arena in China and Dubai and Ireland.