Interview: Lauren Greenfield on Mining Unexpected Riches in “The Queen of Versailles”

After looking at consumer culture's effect on youth with "Kids and Money," the famed photographer and filmmaker turns her lens to adults who should know better in one of...
David and Jackie Siegel in Lauren Greenfield's film The Queen of Versailles

There’s a hint of pride in Lauren Greenfield’s voice when she says now she was rejected by every film school she applied to en route to becoming a renowned photographer. After studying visual anthropology and film at Harvard, Greenfield may have been told no by prospective grad schools, but her husband, who was her boyfriend at the time, encouraged her to “Do your photography and through that you’ll be able to do whatever you want.”

Sure enough, Greenfield’s been around the world in the years since and yet she keeps returning home, her ability to capture one image at a time cultivating an ability to fully get under the images she creates. Both those elements are crucial to “The Queen of Versailles,” her third film and her first proper feature about Jackie and David Siegel, an extraordinarily wealthy couple in Florida who plan to use their billions to build America’s largest mansion.

Given that the 90,000-square foot palace is meant to show off riches unseen by even those who share the same tax bracket with them, the Siegels might not appear to be the best candidates to represent the economic state of the nation. However, nearly everything in “The Queen of Versailles” is about stripping away that façade, from the impact of the economic collapse that devastates David’s timeshare business built on subprime leases on Greenfield’s watch during three years of filming to the harsh reality that lurks beneath the fun and foamy topcoat of the film that the Siegels’ sense of financial responsibility should be uncomfortably familiar to most Americans.

Greenfield’s portrait expands to depict the entire economic spectrum using only the Siegels’ inner circle, whether it’s the domestic staff that tends to the couple’s eight children in order to chase their own American dream by supporting their own families abroad, Jackie’s friends and family in upstate New York who face foreclosure on their homes, and the family’s driver who’s behind the wheel only after his previous career in real estate went from boom to bust. All told, it’s a remarkable film every bit deserving of Greenfield’s win for Best Director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and shortly before the film debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the director spoke about how she was attracted to the Siegels’ story, an initial cut of the film that almost made her cry and getting to what’s underneath the surface.

Since it sounds as if started out as a photography project first, how did it develop into a film?

I’ve been working on a project about wealth for many years, even looking at consumerism in the culture going back to the early ’90s, so I was on assignment photographing Donatella Versace and that’s how I met Jackie. She was one of Versace’s best customers at the time. Early in the film, she says she used to spend a million dollars a year, so she came out to this party with two friends and I made this picture of the three girls’ purses — these very blingy Versace purses — and it was in the Time magazine pictures of the year. Jackie loves photography, loved the picture and that started our friendship in a way.

The first time I met her, she showed me this picture of her and all of the children on the steps of their private jet, so I was intrigued by that and then learned that she was building the biggest house in America. Frankly I didn’t even believe [that] at first, but then it was like why would anybody say that if it wasn’t the case? The first time I went down there and photographed her and her family, I felt like it was a movie and I often do video when I’m shooting photography, even if it’s just for a book interview or exhibition. So I did shoot some video and I just felt like it was a film. There was something about her personality — she came from humble origins and she was smart. She has this generosity of spirit and down to earth quality. There was something very accessible about her, which is not often the case with great wealth, I find. Usually, very wealthy people and billionaires have a kind of protective veil that makes it hard to get to know them. Because she came from those origins, it was a kind of American Dream story and also a reflection on our cultural values, which is always my interest in terms of what that dream looks like.

Yet that’s paralleled with the stories of the people who work for the Siegels, some of whom such as Virginia, the children’s nanny from the Philippines have come to this country for a better life or at least to provide one to her family back home where she sends the majority of her paycheck. Did your ideas about the film change when you started to meet them?

I’m glad you picked up on that Virginia part because for me, her story was also about the American dream. The minor characters [in the film] really show how everybody was chasing their own interpretation of that dream, that in a way, we’re not as different as you would think. I was attracted to that from the beginning and one of the things that attracted me [to the Siegels as a subject] the first time I met them was the domestic help living in the house, both the cross-cultural nature of that help from the Philippines, from Latin America, and the cross-class thing going on because their family, their friends were not rich people for the most part.

There was something not traditionally hierarchical about Jackie’s relationship with the help. She was friends with them and it’s kind of a strange extended family, of course, to a point. But the minor characters were always really important to me and after the crash became more important because I really wanted to show that their story was not a “look at them, these are rich people” story, but an exaggerated form through which we could see what happened to all of us.

For me, the best example of that was the story of Cliff the limo driver, this successful guy in commercial real estate through the boom [who] had a net worth of $3 million, then lost it all including his own home by speculating. That kind of greed and easy money and what cheap financing allowed and then also the trauma that it caused for him to be out of his home. And I saw that in my photography [when] I photographed a lot of different parts of the boom and the crisis and I photographed foreclosure cities in California, we saw people leave their personal effects behind in these houses, so Cliff’s story really reminded me of that.

That project called “Foreclosure Alley” seemed to dovetail into when you began work on this film. Did going from empty houses to the construction of the biggest one in the world change what this film would mean to you?

It really did because [the film] just had a lighter quality in the beginning that’s reflected in the structure of the film. In the beginning, it’s very funny and over the top and you’re kind of like am I ever going to [identify with] these people? No, probably not. They’re living in this fantasy life that you know at best is a fantasy and at worst, I’m offended by – you just don’t know quite what to make of it. And by the end, I feel like they go from being one percent to being the everyman in a way that is unexpected.

It would’ve been easy to demonize the Siegels as crazy rich people, but the film seems to go out of its way to make them relatable, even if most people can’t relate to their lavish lifestyle. Was that something they did for themselves as subjects or was it tricky to find a tone?

It was definitely a big part of the journey because I brought this movie to the Sundance lab last summer and nobody liked the characters. I was actually almost in tears after my first showing because I realized I was kind of failing because there were a lot of qualities about both of them, especially Jackie that I really did like. They weren’t coming through and it changed my approach to the film. In a way, I was worried about what people were going to think of Jackie, so I was restrained at the beginning. Then what ended up happening is I let them be full out in the beginning and let their change in character development happen.

That was stunning during the project because from the first interview with David to the last interview, his physical appearance is completely transformed. In the three years we filmed, it seemed like he aged 10 years. Somebody just mentioned to me, I hadn’t even noticed this – in every frame in the first third, he’s smiling and boasting and I’m slightly intimidated by him and filming him on this gold chair. Then by the end, he’s depressed, he gets angry – even his relationship to the camera has changed because in the beginning, he does a three-hour interview with me and at the end, he’s like, “Are we done yet? I’ve had enough of this.” So that was amazing to see the change.

Of the things that comes out in the change is that they’re both survivors. David’s a total workaholic and Jackie, you realize that she really loves David and tries to pull together the family, so in a way their good qualities don’t have as much of a chance to come out in the beginning. [It’s] all our feelings about the rich come out in the beginning, so it’s only really when they deal with adversity and have that vulnerability and allow themselves to be vulnerable onscreen. One of the things that made me kind of love [David] in a subject/filmmaker way is his candor in front of the camera and the fact he would be vulnerable and say what was going on and usually, I was completely stunned by it.  In fact, at the very end, when he’s saying the Versailles house is in default, the only way Jackie found out about that was by listening in on our interview.

Also, when you see the stress and strain on the household, you realize they’re like everybody else. The shit on the floor, the fighting between the family members — you know that’s how financial strain affects people and how hard it is on marriages. One of the things I’ve often done in my work is look at the extremes to explore the mainstream and that’s what I really tried to do here is let them be extreme, but then realize in a way in their story we can see our own.

Earlier you mentioned how looking at the American dream has been a theme in your work, but in your film work specifically, there seems to be this running idea of keeping up appearances, which must be fascinating as someone who creates images for a living. Is that something you’re conscious of?

I think that’s true. That’s funny because my film teacher from college who was also my advisor at the [Sundance] lab was saying that my movies are all about addiction, so there are these themes that run through that you don’t know [yourself]. But yeah, keeping up appearances is really important for these values. When David says, “I built the house because I can,” I don’t think either David or Jackie care that much about living in the house. David, I think, wanted to build it to show people that he could. And with Jackie, you see how her being a beauty queen enabled her to have this life. She actually started out as an engineer, super-smart, and realized that her beauty could get her further than her engineering degree in terms of where she wanted to go, so that really relates to a lot of my work.

As she gets older, you see her struggle with being that beautiful woman who David was attracted to in the beginning and it does seem like that in the new money wealth, it is about showing what you have rather than that classic old money wealth, which is how I started my career. My first project was about the French aristocracy and [in those circles], you would never show it in that flashy way, but I loved the idea in “The Queen of Versailles” about emulating monarchy and all the references to kings, queens and gold and then also the whole cycle from all different classes.

“The Queen of Versailles” opens in New York at the Elinor Bunin Film Center and the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles at the Landmark on July 20th before expanding into limited release on July 27th. A full list of theaters is here.

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