Photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield describes Queen of Versailles as a super-sized version of what we had seen so many others struggle through in America during the housing crisis. The film centers on Jackie Siegel, an engineer-turned-pageant-queen-turned-billionaire's housewife. Her husband, David Siegel, runs the largest private timeshare company in the United States. Like most who have so much, the Siegels want more, and begin construction on two properties that were meant to become the symbols of David's empire: One was Versailles, a mansion inspired by the French monarchy's royal château and built on Orlando swampland that, once completed, will be the biggest home in the United States The other was Westgate Towers, the tallest timeshare building in the world, built on the Las Vegas strip.
But then crisis hits -- first America and then the Siegel family. David, like so many others, is deep in the pockets of the banks, having taken out mortgages on his properties in order to buy more. After David has sunk hundreds of million of dollars of his own money into the Westgate Towers, the building teeters on the brink of foreclosure, while the Versailles house -- or rather, skeleton -- is put on the market. David's business is on the brink and the viewer is left wondering if the Siegel family will be able to survive the stress their wealth has caused them.
IBTimes spoke with Greenfield about her film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
IBTIMES: What was the original concept of the film?
LG: I've been working on a project about wealth and consumerism and the American Dream in my photography for many years. I was photographing Donatella Versace and I met Jackie [Siegel] at a party for Donatella. Jackie was one of Donatella's best customers at the time and I made a picture there of Jackie's purse -- a very gold, bling-y Versace purse -- that ended up being one of Time Magazine's Pictures of the Year. The caption was The High Life and the picture kind of represented what they were calling the new gilded age, and Jackie told me about building the biggest house in America. I had long been interested in this connection between the American Dream and home ownership -- how the home had become the ultimate expression of self and success.
So I started it with that idea -- with building the biggest house in America. However, I realized that they had this other dream, where David, the head of the largest private time share company in the world, was building the tallest time share building -- a 52 story glass building on the Las Vegas strip -- at a cost of over $600 million. That building turned out to be the overreach that jeopardized their entire fortune and the company. When those buildings went into default eventually, I realized that their story was really an allegory about the over-reaching of America. It was really a super-sized version of what we had seen so many others struggle through.
At what point did you know this was going to be a two-year project?
It was really almost a three year project -- from April 2009 to the end of November 2011. The turn happened very suddenly in May 2010. I was there [at the Siegel home] for a family birthday party and while I was there they put the [Versailles] house on the market, which was a complete surprise. That house was the backbone of the project, and I knew that it would be a different story. It was on that trip that David revealed in an interview that he had never taken anything off the table. He had personally signed for all the loans.
Even after the crash I thought a billionaire like David, and this family, were untouchable because he had such a cushion; I didn't think they'd be affected like regular people are. When I realized that he'd put everything on this business that was then in trouble, I realized what the stakes were -- that they were fighting the economic fight of their lives.
I've noticed that their Versailles house hasn't been sold yet.
It's hasn't been sold yet and they've reduced the price to $65 million (from $75 million).
You mentioned that the American Dream was the dream of home ownership. Is the Siegel's story what that dream has become?
I don't want to say it's what it has become, but that is such an extreme version. But I think during the boom we got bigger and bigger, and this is what I saw in places like foreclosure cities in California, where middle class people would buy big houses at reasonable prices but then as then as the housing market went up, they would take hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their house and home equity loan and build incredible pools and fountains and tiki bars in the back yard, and by the time I got there they were abandoned and foreclosed and there was green water in the pool.
I think that in the age of cheap money, we were all enticed to go more luxurious, to spend more on our credit cards, to have a bigger and better lifestyle. Eventually, we saw the consequences of spending money we didn't have.
Was it a deliberate choice to not show those foreclosure cities in the film and instead focus on this one family?
It was. I've been working on those other parts for the past 20 years in the form of photographs. It's not something I wanted to film. I was really interested in making a cinema verite film, and not a writing-based film. I wanted to make a personal film. I think the thing that was amazing about David and Jackie's story is they really personalize and humanize the housing crisis in a way that you don't expect. When the film starts, you don't know if you're ever going to be able to relate to these people, but by the end, I think you do. There's something about the characters that allow us to see both our virtues and our flaws.
But I always felt that the minor characters were very important too, because they represent other classes and other cultures and other interpretations of the American dream, and they both mirror and contrast David and Jackie's dreams.
Let's talk about the Filipina maids. They seemed like very sympathetic characters who were dragged into this whole mess.
I think Virginia's story really was very tragic. Virginia is a really wonderful nanny who's been with the family a long time and loves the children, and they love her. In her interview, she revealed that she hadn't even seen her kids in 19 years. For her, being a good mother was sending back money for her kids. She had this personal tragedy, but also kind of this new maternal feeling for the Siegel's children. What I thought was really interesting was that this was her seeking her fortune, and America represented the place she could do that.
The interesting thing was when she said that for Filipinos, the dream is also to have a house. She dreamed of earning enough money to build a concrete house in the Philippines. She tells a tragic story about how she wanted to do that for her father, but wasn't able to before he passed away.
She even lived in that micro version of the Siegel's real house.
Yeah. Sometimes she sleeps in the kids' room and sometimes in the summer she likes to sleep out there. It's kind of her respite away from home.
What it like was -- professionally, emotionally -- to follow around one family for such a long time?
It was really intense and amazing. The thing about the whole family, but especially Jackie, is that she moves really fast. Whenever we were there it was very intense -- we were just trying to keep up with her. There's a wonderful energy and chaos in the house that makes it never a dull moment. But if you're gone even for five minutes you feel like you'll miss something.
When I'm working, I usually try to have at least a day a week without cameras with my subjects so I can take pictures and hang out and kind of have down-time with them. But with Jackie and David, I was always scared to not have cameras with me because there was just something always happening. It was like, you go for a birthday party, and all of a sudden Versailles has gone up for sale. Or I'm shooting a family dinner, and the shepherd's pie scene happens. You just never knew what to expect and you always had to be ready for anything.
Is Jackie's personality why it is The Queen of Versailles and not The King?
You know, it was always supposed to be the Queen. I actually didn't expect David to be such a big part of the film. Once the turn happened and their troubles came from his timeshare business, that became a more important part of the theme, and also timeshare became an important symbol for the housing crisis. But Jackie was always, for me, the heart of the story -- what brought me in. It was what would bring the viewer in too, because she has a generosity of spirit and a down-to-earth quality that is not what you'd expect from a billionaire's wife. She comes form humble origins and keeps a down-to-earth accessibility about her.
Does it say anything that today's palaces are built by people like David Siegel, who has a timeshare empire, rather than royalty?
We don't have royalty any more.
I grew up in L.A. and have been looking at issues of wealth and class for many years -- really since I started taking pictures 20 years ago. I think part of it is that I grew up in a place where money defined class. My first photography project was actually about the French aristocracy, because I was so fascinated by this elite milieu that had this history, these rituals, this style, and was so exclusive. Yet they didn't have money any more. That was an oxymoron for me growing up.
But I think what we see in the film is that that comes and goes, and we can't get too attached to it. The hardship really allows Jackie's character to develop. The money and the stuff really weren't as important to her as you might have thought in the beginning.
How did it feel to walk around the empty shell of the Siegel's Versailles house?
I remember they were giving a tour to somebody and a kid said oh, the stairs are like the Titanic's stairs. In a way, the two houses were like two characters in the film. I had to film them in a lot of different ways. In the end of the film, we see the fireworks from Versailles. But, I don't know, you always had to be careful. It was a construction site. There was always an element of don't fall off the unfinished balcony or something.
I think you had to go through there to really understand the size. That's why I ended up doing an aerial shot, because it was so big. It really didn't feel like the scale of a home, but the scale of a convention center.
When they were building the house, the nannies were really worried. For them, it was a bit of a nightmare. They were worried about how they were going to keep track of the kids, how they were going to keep the kids safe. People were going to be going around the house on Segways.
How do react to David Siegel saying that your film is meant to ridicule the 1 percent?
I think it's totally the opposite. I think it humanizes the 1 percent. Audiences have reported to me, and I've shown it in a whole bunch of festivals since Sundance, that they go in thinking that this is a film about the 1 percent -- people they are not going to relate to -- and by the end they can't quite believe that they do relate to them. So, I think that David and Jackie have that unique quality that allows them to hit both notes. They can be larger-than-life with this fantasy life, and then also be the everyman.
I think they interesting thing about them is that they are self made people. They didn't come from wealth, and they carry that with them. In a way, that allowed them to both be survivors. So for me, this actually started out as a film about wealth, about the 1 percent, and it actually transformed into something much more universal that speaks to what we went through as a country, what mistakes people made at all different levels. I think you see that with the limo driver and with Tina, Jackie's friend since childhood. So many people went through this experience and made mistakes. Like Cliff (the limo driver), who bought 19 homes.