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Sundance: 'Queen of Versailles' keenly eyes the rich and struggling

January 19, 2012 |  7:45 pm

The queen of versailles
“In a way, it wasn't a very good idea for a film,” Lauren Greenfield says, looking back. “I liked them and was fascinated, but there wasn't a story there. It was foolhardy to begin.”

But as a celebrated Los Angeles-based photographer and a documentary director (“Thin,” “Kids + Money”), Greenfield has always followed her instincts, and they led her to David and Jackie Siegel, the protagonists of “The Queen of Versailles,” Greenfield's candid and unsettling new film that was the opening documentary at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night.

Jackie was the 43-year-old former beauty queen with an engineering background; David was her 74-year-old husband, father of her seven children and the founder, president and chief executive of Westgate Resorts, at the time the largest privately owned time-share entity in the world. And then there was the House.

Not the 26,000-square-foot Florida house they currently lived in. Oh, no. This was a new residence, modeled on Versailles, a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion with 10 kitchens, 30-plus baths and a closet so big the uninitiated have mistaken it for the master bedroom. That house.

“She was beauty and brains, he was hard work and smarts, and this house is their love child,” Greenfield explains. “When they put that house on the market, I felt like that was the turning point in the film.”

For what started out as an uncertain premise took powerful shape when the 2008 financial crisis hit and rocked the Siegels' world in ways Greenfield, who made 10 trips to Florida over four years, was ideally positioned to record. “That's cinéma vérité at its highest,” the director says, “to be there when life is unfolding.”

The Siegels have yet to see “The Queen of Versailles,” but David was upset enough by what the festival wrote about the film to file a defamation suit against the Sundance Institute, Greenfield and Frank Evers, her husband and executive producer.

Sipping coffee in her and Evers' house and studio compound in Venice, Greenfield can't comment on the suit because Sundance is involved, but she does say that she was back in Florida for Thanksgiving with the Siegels and adds that the legal action hasn't affected her relationship with Jackie.

Once you meet Greenfield, you realize that continued contact is not surprising. She is warm and gregarious, with impressive positive energy.

But it's her cool-eyed belief in capturing photography's decisive moments that led to the highly praised books “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” and “Girl Culture,” and to her being named one of the 25 most influential photographers working today by American Photo magazine.
With a résumé like that, one might wonder why Greenfield wanted to get into film at all, but that was the idea all along.

“I got rejected from any number of film schools after I graduated,” she says. “But Frank — we've been together since college — advised me, 'Do your photography, and through that you'll be able to do anything,'” which is how things worked out.

It was as a photographer that Greenfield began to develop the themes that led to “The Queen of Versailles.”

“I'm not as interested in rich people as I am in our values. I'm interested in consumerism in our culture and how powerful it is,” she says. “I'm also interested in social class. And in America,money defines socialclass.”

Greenfield met Jackie Siegel on an Elle magazine photo shoot about Donatella Versace. At the time, the open, friendly Siegel was one of the designer's best customers, and after a picture Greenfield took of handbags being clutched by Siegel and her friends became one of Time magazine's photographs of the year, the two became fast friends.

The director's original notion was to counteract what she considers the trend to “turn people with big lifestyles into ‘the other.' I thought because the Siegels come from modest origins, because they were so relatable, they could bridge that gap. They move seamlessly between Versace and Wal-Mart, but they also lived in a big house with a lot of domestic help.”

Once the crash hits and the Siegels have to make changes to their lifestyle, the film turns, in Greenfield's view, toward showing that “in a way they were going through what everyone else in America was going through — the downsizing, the financial stress. We overreached beyond our means as a country. We all have these kinds of aspirations, and we all paid the price for it.”

Though Greenfield is most impressed by what she sees as the strength of the Siegels' marriage, the film includes other, more troubling images, such as Jackie Siegel binge-shopping at Wal-Mart, the untimely death of a pet lizard and the sadness of the Filipino nanny who hasn't seen her own children in years.

Asked about this, the director agrees that “all of my work is disturbing in some ways; on some level it should be disturbing. My documentary work shows how we live and looks at our values. All my work is more about questions than answers. I'm not a happy-endings person.”

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— Kenneth Turan in Park City, Utah

Photo: A scene from "The Queen of Versailles," which screened Thursday night in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy Sundance Film Festival.


 
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