Conversation: Lauren Greenfield, Director of ‘The Queen of Versailles’

The building of Versailles, not the one in France, but one in Orlando, Fla., which was set to become the largest home in the nation, is the starting point for a documentary film titled, “The Queen of Versailles.” (Watch the trailer above.)

The film focuses on an immensely wealthy couple and the ups and downs that they go through when the financial bubble bursts. Director Lauren Greenfield won the directing award for U.S. documentaries at this year’s Sundance Festival. I recently spoke to her in our newsroom about her film:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The building of Versailles, not the one in France, but one in Orlando, Fla., which was set to become the largest home in the nation, is the starting point for a documentary film titled, “The Queen of Versailles.” The film focuses on an immensely wealthy couple and the ups and downs that they go through when the financial bubble bursts. Director Lauren Greenfield won the directing award for U.S. documentaries at this year’s Sundance Festival, and she joins me now. Welcome to you.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how did this start? Jackie and David Siegel are the couple that are the focus of your film, and they clearly let you spend a lot of time with them, but when things were going great.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Yes, it started as a story about the building of the biggest house in America. I’m a photographer also and I’ve been photographing a project about wealth for several years, and I met Jackie while I was photographing Donatella Versace. She was one of Versace’s best customers at the time. She used to spend a million dollars a year on clothes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which we see in the film.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: She told me about building the biggest house in America. When I went to it and visited her in Florida and photographed her and family and the house, I felt it was the beginning of a movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why did that interest you? This goes back to your work as a photographer, with a sociological bent I guess. What were you trying to capture? What interested you?

LAUREN GREENFIELD: I’ve long been interested in looking at the culture of consumerism and also was interested in this connection between the American dream and the house, and the house being kind of the ultimate expression of self and success. So the building of the biggest house in America was interesting, and the other thing I was really drawn to was Jackie’s personality. She both she and David come from humble origins, and in a way their life is the American dream. They started off with nothing and built this empire. David built a timeshare empire. So in a way they have this accessibility and kind of down-to-earth quality that made them a kind of access point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, accessibility also, but they clearly decided to open things to you. How did you do it, I mean physically? How much time did you spend with them? Did you feel like you really got to know them in a true sense?

LAUREN GREENFIELD: I did, yes. It was a very close relationship. I filmed over a three-year period. I actually started staying in their home, and then as our crew got bigger we stayed offsite, but we would spend very intensive time over kind of short bursts, 7- to 10-day shoots. We did 10 shoots over a three-year period. I think in the film you really see the evolution of our relationship. In the very first scene I am photographing them, they are posing for me and there is more distance. David is a very intimidating figure and I’m thrilled to hear his story and he tells it in a very confident way. B the end he’s really revealing very candidly what’s going on in the business and in their life, and they both are. There is a real evolution that happens in the interviews, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, well, from what you were saying, this was not how you planned it, but somewhere in those three years, financial crisis happens, the housing bubble bursts, it really affects his timeshare business, because sort of like in the same way, the housing bubble affected a lot of us.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: That’s right. The story completely changed unexpectedly, but I actually, I met Jackie in 2007, when they were at the height of their boom and starting the house and starting his tower, his 52-story tower in Vegas. But we actually started filming after the crash, but they were still living very, very well from my point of view. I thought these were the people who would never be affected, and it wasn’t until 2010 when they had to put their house on the market and David revealed that he had put everything into this building in Vegas, taking nothing off the table, signed personally for everything, that I realized that they were really in the same predicament that so many Americans had been in and that I had also photographed in the foreclosure crisis in California, in the crash in Dubai. I thought they were untouchable, but then they became kind of allegorical figures in the housing crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you felt that? I mean, suddenly this was a metaphor for something different.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Exactly. And when they had to put their house on the market, that’s when I realized this was really an allegory about the overreaching of America and represented what so many people had gone through, but in larger-than-life terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as you said by the end, the relationship had changed, especially with him. He’s not happy, but yet you stayed with them even as they were going down.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: I was very lucky in their willingness to share their life with me, even after things started to change. I think that was due to our relationship and to the fact that we had been filming for awhile when that happened. But ultimately I think it makes them much more empathetic figures. Their relationship with the audience also changes. I think in the beginning you think you could never identify with these people who are living these outsized lives, and by the end you can empathize with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you empathize with them? Did you like them?

LAUREN GREENFIELD: I did, yeah. I liked Jackie a lot and David I have much respect for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you finished the film and then David sued you, right, for defamation?

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Yes, David sued me and Sundance the week before Sundance, and now the suit’s ongoing

JEFFREY BROWN: And that was because he felt that you hadn’t portrayed his business right or his prospects right or, did he just feel like he didn’t understand what you ended up with or …

LAUREN GREENFIELD: I think he didn’t like where I ended the film. I ended it after they lost possession of Vegas, and that was kind of his life’s dream to have that building. I think he would have liked to have seen me continue for several more years and document his coming back up, but for me it was really a morality tale, and Vegas was the thing that was most important and also represented going too big. David speaks that morality tale at the end when he said, I should have been happy with 15 resorts instead of 28. You should live within your means, get back to reality and it’s a vicious cycle. So I felt like he speaks those wise words at the end and that was really the ending.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Well congratulations on the film. It’s called “The Queen of Versailles.” Lauren Greenfield, thanks so much.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.