'Grey Gardens’
David and Albert Maysles
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG
4 (out of 5) Globes

They invite them in, as though their visitors were vampires. “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale stands outside a ramshackle estate, her hair hidden as ever under a thick scarf, offering friendly, knowing greetings to Albert and David Maysles — the acclaimed documentarians of “Salesman” and “Gimme Shelter,” who will turn her and her mother, “Big Edie,” into legends. Are the Maysles exploiting them? It’s a question detractors of “Grey Gardens,” the 1975 crossover doc about the Beales, have long charged. And of course the answer is it’s complicated. On one hand, the Beales — high society drop-outs, cousins of Jackie Onassis, living in a tony Long Island neighborhood in an estate that looks like it barely survived an apocalypse — are a bit too eager to share their cloistered alternate universe. On the other, saying they’re simply being taken advantage of presumes they’re without their mental faculties. What seems crazy can also seem like the height of sanity — two people who’ve eked out a style of living that ignores the oppressive norm.

Indeed, upon “Grey Gardens”’ release, Big and Little Edie were reclaimed as fashion icons and alternative lifestyle philosophers. It’s clearly their dream paid off, even if Little Edie was only able to parlay her cult fame into minimal success, and Big Edie only briefly lived to enjoy it. Not that they seem opportunistic; “An American Life,” the world’s first major reality TV phenom, had only debuted a few years prior, and that level of insta-celebrity had yet to take over the First World. But the Beales clearly enjoy any company and attention, and are happy to play out their usual routines for and to the camera. They hang, they sing, they bicker, sometimes over long ago events — say, Big Edie’s disapproval of some boy her daughter brought home — that could have dramatically altered their present. Little Edie, middle-aged, is a fount of energy, caterwauling about and sometimes pressing her face right up to the lens. Big Edie is content to lounge, often in minimal clothing.

It’s not that they don’t care; they’re flaunting their style. Little Edie regularly offers her beliefs and fashion tips to the camera, explaining her fondness for broaches and why she prefers wearing capes as skirts. She’s vain but she doesn’t hide, for instance, that when she steps on a scale she has to use binoculars to look at her weight. Neither minds the cats and even raccoons that scamper about their home, and proudly show off their decidedly non-society-friendly eating habits, including Wonder Bread for their pets. They’re proud of their clutter, and why wouldn’t they be? It’s all the stuff they’ve accumulated over the years — proof of their existence, splayed out everywhere, without organization or curation. The past and present are part of one mess, and the two often collide. Little Edie is confident in who she is, but she’s also childlike, and get her at the right moment and she’ll let slip that she dreams of escape, especially as the northeast coast descends into unforgiving winter. Watch “Grey Gardens” long enough and the question of exploitation drops, leaving potential victims to become real people.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge