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The Queen of The Queen of Versailles

Ten kitchens. A bowling alley. A health spa. A full-sized baseball field. A separate wing for the children. Something that could logically be referred to as “a grand staircase.” My house doesn’t have any of these things, does yours?

Jackie Siegel’s, on the other hand, will. Or at least, that’s what she and her husband, David Siegel, hoped when they began construction on what would have been the largest single-family residence in the United States, a 90,000-square-foot masterpiece of a home in Orlando. They called it “Versailles.”

I say “would have” because construction on Versailles has halted, yet another victim of the financial crash. The 99 percent may have been hit by the economic downturn, but Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, The Queen of Versailles, puts a face on the 1 percent, too: Jackie.

What is it like to watch somebody with all the trappings of wealth — teetering heels, a litter of fluffy little dogs — lose it all? Greenfield spent more than three years filming Jackie and her family, stepping over the same dog turds ground into the carpet after the household staff was let go to save money as Jackie, David, and their eight kids did.

Roughly the same age as the titular queen [of the documentary], Greenfield and her camera were a mostly-silent presence in the Siegels’ life, witnessing Jackie, an RIT-educated engineer, thinking aloud that her children “might have to go to college” if the money ran out, and David theorizing that “anyone who doesn’t want to be rich is probably dead.”

The base conundrum is this: what does a relationship between an engineering student-cum-beauty queen-cum trophy wife and a documentarian focusing on social ills (Greenfield’s first feature documentary, Thin, focused on eating disorders) look like after three years, multiple foreclosures, countless hours in the editing room, and a lawsuit? (David Siegel has filed a defamation suit against Greenfield and her associates.)

Beyond that: what’s it like to watch a house of cards tumble in slow motion and remain behind the lens?

Greenfield and I sat down for a chat last week in New York ahead of the film’s limited release.

Kase Wickman: For a documentarian to find a story like this seems almost too good to be true. How did you meet Jackie?

Lauren Greenfield: I’m also a photographer and I’ve been working on a photography project about wealth, consumerism, and the American Dream. I was following Donatella Versace, and Jackie showed up at one of her parties. It was a private party, and Jackie was one of Versace’s best customers at the time. I made a picture, which became a really important picture for me, of Jackie’s purse and two other purses and it became one of TIME Magazine’s pictures of the year, representing, as the caption read, “the high life.” This picture represented kind of the gilded age, at the end of 2007. 

When Jackie told me about building the biggest house in America, I was hooked, because I was really interested in this connection between homeownership and the American Dream, and how the home had gotten bigger and bigger and more and more an expression of self — not just a place to live. We started filming, and about a year later, very suddenly, the house got put on the market. That was when David explained that the bankers forced them to put the house up for sale. For the first time, he explained to me that he had never taken anything off the table, and he had personally signed for everything at the business. That’s when I realized what the stakes were. Before that, I didn’t think that billionaires would even be affected by a crash. I thought they were totally insulated. So at that point, I realized — I had photographed foreclosure cities in California and I had photographed the crash in Dubai — I realized there was something very familiar about this feeling of losing your dream home. I realized that their story was really symbolic and important and like everybody else, but supersized.

In your director’s statement, you call the film an epic story. You didn’t know it would turn into this, though, off that first talk with Jackie. What drew you to her?

I was drawn to her as a person, part of it was her openness and her accessibility. I thought it might be an inside way to look at wealth, and a real view — not what we see on reality TV, but real cinema verite, what’s it like to be in that world. As a photographer, I’ve realized that there is very little true representation of the wealthy. In the archives at the Smithsonian or whatever photography archives you go to, there’s mostly commissioned portraiture and society pictures. We’re very good at doing documentary work about the third world and the disenfranchised, but not wealthy people who tend to really control their image. The fact that they were open to being filmed, I thought, this is really unique. And another thing is that their story is really representative of the American Dream: they were both self-made success stories, come up from nothing, and this is what they wanted. It was kind of a look at what the American Dream had become.

Did it take any cajoling to get them to let you film them?

No, [Jackie] really was always very open. I think the amazing thing about Jackie and David in this process is that they were open when things were good, but they were equally open when things were bad. It’s opposite of the way you’d expect. When things got bad, we already had a relationship and I’d been filming for a year.

Would you call yourself friends with Jackie?

Well, we’re definitely friendly and I like Jackie a lot. I tried to … you know, I’m a documentarian and you always have to be very transparent about that rule too, but of course you become fond of the people you spend a lot of time with. Jackie was always the heart of the story, and I feel close to her.

There was a real sense of intimacy there. Was anything ever off-limits?

No, in fact I remember on the last trip there, she said, I said, “If this movie goes to Sundance, will you come?” And she said yes, and she said, “Is this story about how we lost everything?” And we talked about what the story, kind of the journey–

What did you tell her?

I said yes. I said that it’s about that, but it’s also about what you found along the way and who she is. She said, “well, you know, I am who I am.”

The thing that was great for me about Jackie and David is that they never had any shame about what happened. They never tried to cover anything up. They were very upfront about it all, and I think it’s because they were very proud of their accomplishments. Even when things got hard, David certainly was fighting the good fight, and I was there documenting that every step of the way.

And it seems like Jackie’s seen kind of every level: rich, poor…

She came from probably middle class, Binghamton, New York, the town that IBM made great and then suffered when IBM left. I think it was kind of a typical American upbringing. Her friend’s grandmother says she never forgot her friends. That’s the thing about Jackie: she was able to go right back in and sit and have a glass of wine with her friends. She even stayed at her friend Beth’s home. She didn’t look for the nicest hotel in Binghamton. She’s kind of strangely classless but clearly loves all the stuff of the luxurious life, too.

But her kids, several times throughout the film, seemed to be trying to get Jackie to tone it down. One of them made a snotty comment about her wearing a fur coat.

The kids were almost embarrassed at their wealth, they didn’t like being different from other kids. Especially when they switched to public school. There was one day where David really got on his mom’s case for picking her up in a big car driven by a nanny with her in it. He’s like, “Why can’t you pick me up like all the other moms?”

What did she say?

She was like, she just kinda laughed it off, like “what’s unusual about our life? We have a black car, you want to be picked up in a red car.”

Sundance was the first time Jackie saw the film, and you warned ahead of time that she wouldn’t answer questions from the audience because she “needed time to absorb it.” What was the first thing she said about the film?

I think the first time she saw it, she was really sad about things, but now I don’t notice that with her as much. More laughing. Now, what I noticed at Silverdocs in Washington, is people came up to her and thanked her for sharing her story. She’s somebody who does connect with other people, and I think that was moving for her to have that experience.

David has very publicly filed suit against you, saying you defamed him in the film, but Jackie has been coming to premieres, and obviously spending time with you. Is that kind of an elephant in the room?

We try not to talk about it. I know she’s not happy about it, but I’m glad she’s been able to share the rollout of the film and come here and help promote the film and come to festivals and come here.

Do you think you’ll still have a relationship once the promotion for the film is over?

I do.

How would you characterize your relationship? Are you friends?

We talk a lot, we text a lot. I made a film called Thin that came out in 2006; it was about eating disorders. Shelly, who was the main person in the film, continued to struggle with eating disorders even after the film. When Queen of Versailles premiered at Sundance, Shelly was in the audience. Every time I go to Sundance we meet at the airport and have a coffee. I think it’s a very unusual bond. It’s like I was saying to Jackie when we were on the Today show: “We’re never going to be here again. Let’s just remember this moment.” We were so nervous, but let’s just remember this moment and enjoy it and take a picture of us in front of NBC. Because when you’re schlepping around in the field and doing it every day — and Jackie gave us a lot of time — you just don’t know if it’ll ever turn out to be anything, and so it’s just very exciting and so I think it’s an experience you never forget.

Obviously you got a lot of Jackie when you were filming. You even watched her get Botox and facial peels. How much of that same kind of, I don’t know if the word is intimacy, did she get from you?

I think that she took a lot from our visits. I think she was always sad when we left. I remember the last trip. We both knew this was the last trip and we were both like “Oh, this is over.” It’s bittersweet.

Did she ever ask your advice on anything? What did you talk about?

Um, no, she didn’t really ask me for advice. Jackie kind of does what Jackie does. She sometimes would want to know about my life. Like she would ask my field producer, “What’s Lauren’s house like?”

She’s never seen your house? You spent almost the entire filming process in her house.

No, she wanted to come out to the LA Film Festival, but then it didn’t work out.

Did you ever have any moments of doubt that the film wouldn’t come together?

When [Versailles] went on the market, I knew something more universal and more important was happening, so I was just trying to keep up with it and cover it. The thing that was most difficult and [made me question whether we would] be able to keep going was that we never had the money for the next trip. This was a very independently made movie and it was only pretty far after the turn happened that any backers signed on. In the beginning, people just didn’t get why this was interesting. And so every trip, it was like “Can we afford it, can we make deals, can we make it happen?” And then while we were editing there were a lot of events unfolding, and it wasn’t until the very end when David lost possession of Vegas, which was a huge piece for the end of the film. It was like, “Can we finish, are we gonna be done, can we do this? Do we need another year?” When that shoe dropped I felt like the movie was done.

There was an interview near the end of the film that really surprised me, like it was a direct response to all the viewers wondering what this woman was thinking. Jackie says something along the lines of “People think I’m stupid, but I’m not stupid, I just don’t know. I wasn’t told about any of this.”

That was really amazing, because I didn’t realize until pretty close to the end how little communication there was between Jackie and David about the financial. She actually found out that Versailles house was in foreclosure by listening in to my interview. That interview outside was right after that, where she was like, “I didn’t know.” The thing that was really powerful to me was you can see how she is in front of camera at that point: she has no makeup on, she’s not wearing shoes, she had just allowed me to film her getting 20 layers blasted off her face. If you contrast that with the opening scene, where she’s posing for my camera and perfect hair and makeup and the outfit — there was just a real evolution in our relationship and in the intimacy of what was going on and how she became real.

In the beginning it’s about this pose and this posturing and you see all these family photos and what they want to present to the world, and by the end it’s just like, telling the truth, letting it all hang out and being yourself.

There are so many characters in this film, but it’s all revolving around Jackie and what she wants and what she does. Is it okay to read this as a sort of meta-commentary on women and society?

A lot of my work focuses on women. I did a book called Girl Culture that’s about how the body has become the primary form of expression for girls and women. And last year I did a short called “Beauty Culture,” which looked at the beauty industry and especially the challenges of aging for women. I’m definitely interested in how the body and beauty become currency for women. And how that currency is used. Jackie has an amazing story because she is an engineer from RIT who realized at a young age that her beauty could get her further in terms of where she wanted to go than her engineering degree. What does that say about our culture?

I think what’s interesting is their relationship, in the beginning, you don’t know what the basis of their relationship is. Did she marry him for love, did she marry him for money, he’s 30 years older and he’s a billionaire. What you realize by the end is that she really loves him and maybe he was attracted by her beauty.

It’s also revealed in the film that Jackie was abused by her first husband. She’s really kept in the dark and made small in her own home, it seems. Has anyone drawn parallels between the situations, or been concerned for Jackie?

Jackie would be really clear that David is nothing like her former husband. I think that’s part of why she loves him, because he’s kind in his own way, and he takes care of her in a kind of doting way. And I think she has pretty low expectations for the way she wants to be treated in a way, in that setting. I think he is good to her in the ways that she thinks are important. And I think I included that first relationship because it’s important to understand both where she’s been, why she’s a survivor and why she really loves David and really yearns for his affection. She’s very clear that it’s never been abusive.

Lastly, there’s a real dearth of women in filmmaking. Do you see it as a boys’ club?

I don’t think there’s that discrimination in the documentary world. I think most fields without money are ghettos that attract smart women. I feel like there are a lot of really talented women documentary filmmakers. I’m also represented for commercials and I’m in a company where the two owners are women, and I think I’m the only woman who’s represented as a director. I think in features and commercials, it’s more of a challenge. But in my work, it’s always been either neutral or a benefit because I’ve told stories about women. We live in a world especially post economic crisis where it’s too competitive to allow for discrimination. I think talent rises.

 

The Queen of Versailles is out in limited release in Los Angeles and New York.

Kase Wickman is a features writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her apartment only has one kitchen. You can follow her on Twitter.

 

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