The rich are different from you and me, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said. It certainly seems that way at the start of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” opening Friday. The film shines a light on the opulent lifestyle of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, whose many toys include luxury cars, private jets, and a massive home with a throne where they pose for photographs. But as over the top as the Siegels’ conspicuous consumption may be, “Queen of Versailles” shows they have something in common with many Americans: They’re now paying for their excesses.
“The Siegels were a super-sized version of what I’d seen happening all over the country and it changed their story into an allegory about the overreaching of America,” said Greenfield while in Boston for the film’s showing at this year’s Boston Independent Film Festival. “That’s when it got really compelling, because it started out as about people that you might be fascinated by but can’t identify with because it’s such an outsize situation. In the end, I think they become people you can identify with.”
Greenfield, who studied film and photography at Harvard (class of 1987), began shooting Siegel, a 74-year-old time-share tycoon; his third wife, Jackie, a 43-year-old former beauty queen with an engineering degree; and their eight children in 2007. That’s when they were building what they called the largest single-family home in the country: a 90,000-square-foot Florida estate inspired by and named for the French palace of Versailles. Greenfield didn’t know, of course, that the housing bubble would burst a year later. David Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time-share empire was so heavily leveraged that he could not get financing. He halted construction on Versailles and put it on the market for $75 million. Still unfinished and still for sale (a bargain at $65 million), the estate has 10 kitchens, two grand staircases, 13 bedrooms, 22 baths, and a 20-car garage.
“I never wanted to do a film about crazy rich people. I wanted their qualities to mirror our own,” said Greenfield. “Few of us are not guilty of overspending. It’s not just about one family; it’s not about the one percent; it speaks to our values as Americans and the mistakes we all made during the boom and what becomes a morality tale after the crash.”
The film may be a bit too realistic, at least for its subject. David Siegel in January filed a lawsuit against Greenfield, producer Frank Evers (Greenfield’s husband), Magnolia Pictures, and Bravo Media (which bought the TV rights), claiming the film defames him because it makes it seem as though Westgate Resorts failed. Originally, the Sundance Institute was included but Siegel has since dropped it from the suit.
The New York Daily News reported July 18 that Siegel wrote a letter to Greenfield’s lawyer asking that the film’s ending be changed to reflect his contention that Versailles is not in foreclosure and that construction has resumed. “Versailles does not face foreclosure because it was refinanced, and construction is starting again,” Siegel wrote in his letter dated July 16. Martin Garbus, Greenfield’s lawyer, responded that the film will not be changed, according to the Daily News. “It tells a story about a time in America. Everybody should see it and make their own judgement [sic],” Garbus said in a statement. “Nothing in The Queen of Versailles is staged.”
Greenfield, though she does not discuss the suit in interviews, said Jackie Siegel loves the film and attended its Sundance Film Festival premiere, where Greenfield won documentary directing honors.
Greenfield, 46, was born in Roxbury and lived there until she was 6 and moved to Southern California. She didn’t know where her work was headed back in 2007, but she’s long been drawn to documenting the impact of wealth, consumerism, and body image on the popular culture in her photography, short films, and her 2006 feature HBO documentary, “Thin,” about eating disorders. She said she first met Jackie Siegel when Greenfield was photographing Donna Versace for Elle magazine. Jackie, whom Greenfield calls “one of [Versace’s] best customers,” had flown to Los Angeles from Orlando, Fla.
“I made a picture of Jackie’s purse — which was a very gold, very bling-y Versace purse — next to two other purses, like three purses talking to each other. It got chosen as one of Time magazine’s pictures of the year,” Greenfield recalled. “Jackie and I stayed in touch and at one point she told me she was building the biggest house in America. I almost didn’t believe it because it seemed so implausible.” Continued...