Featuring 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, three pools and every amenity under the sun, David and Jackie Siegel planned to create the largest house in America…that is, until the economy came tumbling down. “The Queen of Versailles,” a new documentary from renowned photographer Lauren Greenfield, chronicles the rise and fall of these real-estate moguls and gives an intimate glimpse behind their mansion walls.
I was given the extraordinary opportunity to speak with Greenfield, who has had her work featured everywhere from the Smithsonian to “Vanity Fair” to the Sundance Film Festival. After it picked up the U.S. Directing Award for Greenfield at Sundance this past winter, “The Queen of Versailles” opened at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on Friday.
RYAN: I understand you met Jackie shortly before making the documentary, but once you got to know her, what drove you to make a film about the family and their mansion? Was there any reluctance from Jackie or David about it?
GREENFIELD: I’m a photographer and that’s part of what drove me to make the documentary. I was working on a project in my photography about consumerism and the American Dream, which I’m still working on—I’ve been working on that for about 20 years. I was photographing Donatella Versace for “Elle” magazine and I met Jackie pretty serendipitously: She was one of her customers at one of her parties in Beverly Hills and we started talking. I made a picture of her purse and these two other purses, which was a pretty important picture for me, and it was published in the “Time” magazine “Pictures of the Year.” It was said to represent the “high life” and they were saying this was like a representation of what some people would call the “new gilded age” in 2007.
She said she was building the house and that got me hooked because I was interested in the connection between home ownership and the American Dream, and the way the home had gotten bigger and became not just a place to live or raise a family, but an expression of identity and success. That kind of started and I went down to photograph the family and the house, and I kind of fell in love with the setting and the house that they lived in then that they still live in now, which is a 26,000-square-foot “starter mansion.” It was just all the characters, the domestic help, the kids and all the portraits and pieces of themselves that got me.
Jackie really liked to be photographed and she was always on board. David and I had some long conversations about it, but he liked the idea, too, and he was proud of his achievements and fascinated by the building of the house.
I think what’s extraordinary about them is that they opened their doors at the beginning when things were good and kept them open even when things got bad. I think the time that we spent together—I filmed it over a 3-year period—it was just a very personal kind of documentary in the sense that we were spending long hours with family, in their house, and in the midst of the situation, I was just really grateful for their openness in front of the camera. They were really extraordinary in the way they were just able to live their lives incredibly naturally and unchanged by the cameras, it was kind of amazing.
I’ve worked in a lot of sensitive-access situations: My last feature-like documentary was about an eating-disorder clinic, but there was something really amazing about the way the Siegels were able to be themselves in front of the camera, I’ve never seen anything quite like that. Part of it was working in such a big house, so we were able to be a four or five-person crew and not make advances into anybody’s personal space and really be a fly-on-the-wall.
I think there was also something very confident and open about the Siegels, of their story and in a way, their sense of how the good things and the bad things that happened to them were somehow indicative of what was going on with the American Dream. There was never any shame attached to that or any sense that they had done anything wrong.
RYAN: How would you say your intentions of what you wished to accomplish with the film changed when the recession happened and how did you see the family dynamics change, more specifically within the relationship between Jackie and David?
GREENFIELD: The relationship between David and Jackie is really at the heart of the story. It started with Jackie, and then you thought it’d be about the family, but at a certain point, it was clear that the love story between Jackie and David was really at the heart of the story. The house in a way was their lovechild, and indicative of all they had brought from their back-stories and kind of the natural extension of their success.
I kind of went in with the house as the American Dream and as they struggled with the effects of the financial crisis, their story really became an allegory about the overreaching of America, the flaws of the American Dream and the way we had all kind of gotten sucked into it. They had put their dream home up for sale in 2010 and by that point, I had also seen instances in California and Dubai where I had seen this dream house being put on the market, and people looking at the prospects of letting go of that and the prospects of foreclosure. It was really clear that it was a supersized version of what had happened to so many people and that’s why I felt it was also important to see people like Cliff and Virginia (the Siegels’ hired help) who had similar interpretations of the American Dream but on vastly different levels.
I think the tone of the film certainly changed very dramatically and suddenly when the house was put up for sale in 2010 and that was also the same time that David told me for the first time that he had personally signed all the business loans and had never taken anything off the table. Even way after the crash, I never thought people like this would be hurt by the crash. I thought that they had tons of insulation and that, as a business, they just might be making adjustments. It wasn’t until he made it clear that he had mortgaged his home for the business and that he had personally signed for everything that I realized everything was at stake.
At a point, the tone in the film and in the house really did change and there was a lot of tension in the house. I think that was one of the things that brought their story down to earth and made them relatable was that you could see how financial stress creates stress on relationships and affects families…In this situation, they were just like so many other people.
RYAN: I thought the film did an excellent job of allowing the audience to sympathize with David and Jackie equally, but was there one of them that you sympathized with or felt more connected to?
GREENFIELD: Well, I called the movie “The Queen of Versailles” because Jackie was always the heart of the story for me: She was my original contact and she was the person that really brought me through the story and who I spent the most time with.
I think the unexpected pleasure and gift of the film was getting to know David. He was so candid in our interviews, and that was something that every time we sat down, I was not expecting. His interviews were really the way that I understood what was happening. It was real hard to understand what was happening, the real jeopardy they were in and what was going on with the business, except in David’s interviews. That was really the way I got educated about what was going on. They were living in this big house but as Jackie says at the end, she doesn’t even really know what is going on. David’s interviews were the times that I felt close to him and really got to feel compassion for him and really got to see his struggle. It was amazing.
The thing is, he definitely made mistakes and he was the first person to admit that. He made mistakes that are in a way similar to mistakes a lot of other people made. The interesting thing about him being in the timeshare business was that he was the lender and borrower…He was the person that lived by the sword and died by the sword.
In a way, the working-class and middle-class people buying timeshares are also looking for that sense of luxury and are also looking to move on up in a way that David was also doing with Versailles and with his building in Vegas. I think that full-circle, it represented a kind of treadmill or distortion of values that as a society, we’re all kind of part of.
RYAN: What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing “The Queen of Versailles”?
GREENFIELD: I’ve been really happy with people saying that they can sympathize with them, I think in a way that was the real challenge: They are the 1 percent, they are building the biggest house in America, it’s epic in both size and proportion. What I hope they walk away with is, that they view the story as symbolic, as an allegory and as something that can apply to all of us, whether we’re relying too much on our credit cards or treating our homes like piggy banks and ATM machines. David says at the end, “We need to get back to reality, we need to live within our means, it’s a vicious cycle that we’re all a part of.” I think if we get that when audiences are walking away from the film and we’re rethinking what the American Dream is about and our values, I think that would be a great result.