A palace fit for the queen of consumption

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

What sort of person would decide to build the biggest house in America? Not just the biggest, but a monstrous, mega-mansion replica of the Palace of Versailles, overlooking Florida’s Walt Disney World, complete with its own bowling alley, spa, 10 kitchens, 30 bathrooms, and an entire wing for the kids. And what sort of person would build this with no sense of irony, given the fact that the last royal residents of Versailles wound up losing their heads when the revolution came?

These are the questions that drove photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield when she met Jackie Siegel, the wife (by all appearances, the trophy wife) of Florida’s billionaire time-share condominium king David Siegel. While Greenfield suspected there was a story here, she got more than she expected when — deep into filming the construction of the couple’s extravagant new home — the 2008 financial meltdown struck, and the Siegels, like so many less well-off Americans, were left on the brink of foreclosure.

Greenfield’s resulting documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” won the best-director award (documentary category) at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, but the film, which plays like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” plus schadenfreude, went well beyond the usual art-house circuit, grossing $2 million in its theatrical release and gaining a mass audience on cable TV and streaming site Netflix.

In a Skype interview with The Japan Times, Greenfield laughs and says, “I felt like I had succeeded when I took a plane back from London to Los Angeles and I went through customs and the officer didn’t ask me the purpose of my trip, but just looked at my passport and said, ‘Oh, I just watched “The Queen of Versailles” — how’s Jackie? What’s going to happen to the house?’”

The impetus for the film is Jackie herself, a busty, blonde former model who Greenfield met in 2007 while doing a photo shoot for Versace in Beverly Hills. Appearances aside, Greenfield was struck by how Jackie didn’t share the characteristics of the super rich.

“Jackie never cared how things looked. She was a very down-to-earth person. She’s kind of a free spirit in that way. She enjoyed the toys and the freedom and the life (that money brought), she enjoyed the attention, she enjoyed being able to do things, but she wasn’t a socialite, she wasn’t a snob,” says Greenfield.

“The Queen of Versailles” opens with some truly kitsch portrait paintings — in which the family are done up as royalty — hanging on the walls of the Siegels’ home, and it’s easy to expect that the film will adopt the usual tone of snarky condescension found in American indie films, but Greenfield doesn’t take that route.

“I became very close to them,” admits the director. “It was embedded journalism, but there’s always a critical perspective, too. I think that when you have that kind of access and trust, when you’re in somebody’s private space, (you’re) not going to make a film that way (i.e., satirical). You have the opportunity to see people’s humanity in that situation and kind of look at why things are that way instead of pointing your finger.”

Along with the furs, speedboats, and visits to a McDonald’s drive-thru in a stretch limo, the film reveals Jackie’s roots — a small-town, blue-collar upbringing — and how she trained as an engineer before becoming a model. She’s a contradictory figure, a woman who has a shoe closet large enough to shame Imelda Marcos, yet who will impulsively write a check for a friend whose own house is being foreclosed on.

Greenfield notes how “one of the surprising things for Jackie when the film came out was how people saw her. I mean, she got a lot of positive feedback, because a lot of people liked her and felt they could identify with her. But some people also think that the life that (the Siegels) lead is outrageous, and more than that, offensive or wrong, and she’s surprised by that. She lives in her own reality, her own bubble, and it’s hard for her to see, ‘why people aren’t just happy for me.’”

Jackie’s off-the-cuff remarks such as “I wouldn’t have had so many kids if I couldn’t have a nanny” will certainly strike viewers as either endearingly frank or obscene.

The couple are extraordinarily open on screen, even as their household nears meltdown when the domestic help is downsized and David appears ready to implode from the stress of trying to save his house and business. I ask Greenfield if she was ever asked to turn the cameras off and she says no.

“There was never any time where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe we can’t film right now.’ In their house we really had free rein. Since reality TV (became popular), people seem to have an understanding about what the camera is, and that changes their behavior. But that didn’t happen with Jackie and David. They just were themselves in front of the camera, in really hard moments, too. I will always be grateful to them for that.”

For Greenfield, the point is not to bash the Siegels, who she likes personally (despite David Siegel’s lawsuit claiming the film defamed his business — a suit he ultimately lost).

“My film was not about just blaming the bankers, the titans of the financial industry; this is also about our collective behavior, our individual behavior, and how we lost sight of our values, and how the American Dream has become a very consumeristic one. And in that consumerism is a kind of addictive quality, where we’re insatiable,” says Greenfield.

She points to a key scene where, after the Siegels determine to tighten their belts as the crisis pinches their cash flow, Jackie goes off to Walmart for Christmas shopping and returns with several cars full of purchases, including a few bicycles. The next shot shows a room at their home containing what seems to be about two dozen barely used kids bikes, piled on top of each other.

“We’re never happy with what we have,” says Greenfield. “They have the 26,000-sq.-foot starter mansion, but want the 90,000-sq.-foot one. The movie is a morality tale, but David is now making money again and wants to finish building the house. It’s kind of like, have we learned nothing?”