’The Queen of Versailles’ :: downsizing blues, ’one-percent’ style

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 23, 2012

Sure to be one of the years most talked-about documentaries, The Queen of Versailles is distinctly American in ways many of us would likely rather not admit. It follows the Siegel family, headed by patriarch and time-share mogul David Siegel. His wife, Jackie, is 30 years his junior, and spends most of the time with their kids (he, seemingly, spends most of his free time complaining about Jackie.)

At the film's start, it appears to be a satirical folly, with director Lauren Greenfield documenting their attempts to build our nation's largest domestic home, a McMansion with regal flourishes. But then the markets crash.

The kind of situational comedy and arrogant ignorance that Greenfield captures in their "downfall" (a term that hardly applies to a family who simply begins overspending with Wal-Mart instead of Versace) will have you thinking the film has to be scripted, a Christopher Guest-style take on the inadequacies of the American Dream. Not least because Greenfield truly seems to have some reverence for their broken, oversized dreams. But, as always, truth is stranger than fiction. We spoke to Lauren about the constant conflict that comes with capturing something magical on film at the precise time your subject is suffering.

Capturing a pivotal moment

EDGE: What I found most incredible about your film was the scope of it. You follow these people through years, and in that you captured an incredibly pivotal moment in their lives [relating to the financial crash] that you never could've predicted. What were you originally looking for in documenting the Siegels?

Lauren Greenfield: I had no idea what it was going to be when I started. But when I met Jackie I was following Donatella Versace, Jackie was one of her best customers. I took a picture of her and her purse - her gold purse - along with two other purses, and it became one of the TIME Magazine pictures of the year.

Jackie liked it, and we stayed in touch, and she told me she was building the biggest house in America. And I had been working on this photography project about wealth, so I said 'I want to come down and photograph you sometime.' She said, 'sure!'

The next step

EDGE: At what point did you realize an interest in Jackie that you wanted to take it one step further? Was it when you photographed her purse?

Lauren Greenfield: She showed me a shot her with her seven kids on the wing of her jet. I kind of fell in love with the setting of her house, all the children, the kind of 'upstairs/downstairs' nature of all the domestic help from all these different cultures living in the house. And the thing about Jackie and David is because they come from humble origins, they have a very down-to-earth nature in ways, even if they're billionaires. Jackie loves loves McDonald's.

But it's not hierarchical. They talk with them [the help.] It's an unusual family, so I started it thinking it would be about the biggest house in America, with that as the backdrop for this upstairs/downstairs thing. Once the financial crisis happened, it elevated their story into an allegory about the overreaching of America. About how we're all complicit in that with our obsessive wants, needs, and desire to get bigger and bigger.

EDGE: So the film is talking about a lot more than just this one family.

Lauren Greenfield: I saw a connection between the house and the American Dream, and this crisis shed so much light on the cracks and fissures in that dream.

No barefeet

EDGE: Is that what you were looking for in the first place?

Lauren Greenfield: I've been looking at consumerism and the way it intersects with our values for 20 years. These are themes I've been looking at for a long time.

EDGE: I particularly admired one piece of symbolism related to that theme in your film. The repeated shots of Jackie and her crew being forced to pick animal feces off the ground, left there by their own irresponsibility.

Lauren Greenfield: I remember doing an interview and taking off my shoes to be quiet, and be comfortable, and I stepped in dog pee. My DP [director of photography] looked over at me and said, 'yeah... don't take your shoes off around here.' The first trip where that happened I didn't film it. It took me a little while to realize that it's a big part of the story. The animals too. They feel like a part of the family, and when they start dying, and getting lost....

No judgement

EDGE: One thing I have to ask is that a lot of times in this film, these characters make themselves look like real fools. When Jackie starts warning her kids that they 'may have to go to college someday,' it's hard not to cringe. You seem to have some reverence for these people - how do you reconcile that in the editing room, choosing just exactly how much to show?

Lauren Greenfield: Well in the filming I try to be really open and catch without judgment. In the edit... My work is always sociological. But it's also done through intimate access. So I'm always with you close, documenting everything. But thinking - what does it mean? What does it say for our culture or for our values? Does it relate to other things? I don't know. I tried to be honest about the story but also be fair. And that particular line is surprising because Jackie was educated herself. But I tried to keep in all the 'important' stuff.

EDGE: I take it once the crash happened you realized you'd capture something pretty important in their 'downfall'.

Lauren Greenfield: Well, it happened over time. I had a sense of what was happening, and as a photographer I was covering these things in other ways. I covered the consumerism boom, and then I was shooting foreclosures in California. I was processing the shift in a lot of different ways. I realized as I was going that this was a very important part of the American dream. Jackie did too. She kept saying, 'what's happening to us is happening to everyone, it's just on a different level.'

"The Queen of Versailles" is in theaters on July 20, 2012.