‘Queen of Versailles’ Director Lauren Greenfield on the Biggest House in America and the Recession and the Rich

Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles was one of the first movies to sell at the Sundance Film Festival, and one of the best documentaries I saw there. The movie follows timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie as they seek to build the largest house in America, a palatial mansion they’ve dubbed Versailles. In addition to exploring America’s consumption addictions, Queen of Versailles is also a concise explanation of the roots of the financial crisis: the Siegels’ business relies on cheap credit, both to fund the construction of new timeshare developments, and to get customers to take out loans so they can afford the second homes that are, for them, an embodiment of the American dream. The movie follows the Siegels as they overextend themselves on their home, and as they experience the consequences of their customers’ defaults. It’s a sharp, surprisingly sympathetic story. I spoke with Greenfield about her relationship with the Siegels, American consumption, and how the fate of the 1 percent impacts the 99 percent. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you first get interested in the Siegels’ story?

I’m a photographer also, and I had been working on a project about wealth and consumerism. My last film had been a short called Kids + Money. I was photographing Donatalla Versace. Jackie was one of Donatella’s best customers at the time. I made a picture of Jackie’s gold, blingy purses that ended up being in Time’s 100 Best Pictures. Jackie told me about building America’s biggest house. In [another] picture [Jackie showed her], there were 7 kids on the steps of her private jet. I was also working a project about women and aging, and the fact that she had all of these kids, I was just interested in her as a subject…I was interested in her character as a billionaire. She didn’t act like we expect rich people to act, she didn’t have this protective veil that we expect to come with wealth. There was that dichotomy that, eventually, spoke to me about the American dream and the connection between this house and the American dream.

You mentioned that Jackie was different from other rich people you’d encountered. What was the difference?

In my own work on wealth, when I photographed rich kids in Los Angeles for example, there was a jadedness that I never saw in Jackie. She loves the stuff. She wasn’t part of upper-class society. She didn’t use the money as a way to join a country club with other rich people. She would socialize with people from her family, which was all kind of part of the entourage, and they’re not rich. Her relationship with the domestic staff was non-traditional and non-heirarchical in a way. She didn’t have the protective barriers of wealth. She’s very open, very generous. I saw in her a way to document an inside view of wealth…The thing about Jackie and David is they kind of embody our virtues and our flaws of the American scene…As over the top as Jackie is, I’ve gone to Costco and loaded up on a cart of stuff I did not intend to buy because it’s two for one or bigger is better. I started out with this inside view of the rich, but at a certain point, it turned, and that turned for me when they had to put their house on the market. A lightbulb went on, and I realized they were similar to people that I’d photographed in foreclosure cities, in the crash in Dubai. It became an allegory for the overreaching.

What do you see as David and Jackie’s virtues? Much of the movie is about their mistakes.

I guess what I mean by the virtues is they’re both rags to riches stories. Jackie came from humble origins, was really smart, and then, a flaw of American culture, realized that her beauty would get her further than her engineering degree. David also came from nothing and is totally devoted to his work. In a way, they are success stories. But what they did with their success was build bigger and bigger. As they fall financially, you do see them finding other values. And for Jackie, it wasn’t until the hardships came, that I really saw her as a survivor. In the beginning, with all the stuff, you wonder if you love him for money.

One of the things that I thought worked well about the movie was the way it balanced between the Siegels’ personal experience and a larger explanation of financial systems. Was that something you consciously set out to do?

That was really interesting for me. When I started this process, I didn’t even know David’s business was time shares. I really started with Jackie, and didn’t get that interested in time share parts of it until they started being really affected by the crash. I saw that time share was an incredible metaphor for the housing crisis and aspiration to luxury. David was selling this dream of luxury to middle-class and low-income people, and the dream of having a luxurious second home they can’t have all year round…He was selling mortgages to people and he was also beholden to the bank. His business could not function without lending from the banks, which made him so vulnerable when the banks shut off financing. It was a great way to look at the housing crisis because he was getting it from both sides, he was buying it and selling it. It’s a vicious cycle, and no one is without guilt. Bank of America may be a villain, but what they’re all taking advantage of is our own greed.

Do you think we’re capable of adjusting expectations in the wake of the recession? Can we shrink the scale of the American dream?

I think you see lessons learned, you see Chris the limo driver talking about friends and family being the only things that matter, you see Virginia, who has taken this dollhouse and turned it into a speical place for her. You see Jackie saying if we had to move into a three-bedroom house, we’ll just get bunk beds. But [since the events of the movie] David has taken out a huge loan to keep Versailles. Who knows if the lesson is really learned?

But that is what I’d like people to take away from the film. Chris says it, that renting is not the same as owning. It just is so intertwined with the American dream to own your own home. And I guess during the boom, it wasn’t enough to own your own home. For many people like Chris, that took us out of our homes. Jonquil, Jackie’s adopted niece who’s moved into the mansion from poverty after her mother died, in the beginning she can’t believe she’s in the mansion and has some perspective on it…Yet at the end of the movie, we see her acting differently in the dead lizard scene, she’s kind of comlaining that the nannies aren’t taking her to the pet store to get the food to feed the lizard and that’s why the lizard dies. She’s not taking responsibility. She says ‘I see that you just want more and more.’

We’ve often seen the discussion about the recession couched in terms that separate the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Your movie seems to argue for a kind of interdependence, and a set of common problems just on different scales.

I’m happy to hear that people have experienced it as a kind of allegorical story. It gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own life. Did you buy too much house, or take out too big of a mortage, or put too much on your credit card? I saw this in foreclosure cities with middle class families in California. I tried to include this with minor characters whose stories mirrored David and Jackie’s. I think that’s the value in the movie, of having a chance to think about both your own situation and where we are as a culture and what our cultural values are…[There’s the saying that] “Americans don’t hate the rich because someday they imagine they’ll be them.” David and Jackie sort of represent that fantasy, if you woke up one day, you’d build a castle and you’ll fly around the world.