Director and photographer Lauren Greenfield set out to chronicle David and Jackie Siegel's endeavor to build the largest single-family home in America, a 90,000 square-foot Orlando mansion — to put it lightly — modeled after both Versailles and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. But as the U.S. economy continued to implode, timeshare king Siegel saw his fortune — tied to his Westgate Resorts business — dry up, and the film suddenly became about something else entirely.
The timing of this was pretty interesting. You couldn't really plan something like this.
No, I couldn't have planned it. I started when they were building the house. We actually didn't start filming till early 2009, so it was a few months after the crash, but at that time they were building the house, and for me they were the people who would never be affected by the crash. We then filmed for three years, and it wasn't until the middle of 2010 when they had to put their house on the market that the story really shifted in the film, the tone and direction really shifted. And at that point I realized it was a bigger story, not about this one family or even about the rich but really about an allegory about the overreaching of America.
When a change like that occurs, how do you convince your subjects to keep going with the project?
You know, it really didn't take much convincing. I don't know if it was because we had been working together for a while at that point, but I think it was also because David and Jackie did not have any shame about what was going on. David felt very victimized by the banks and what happened, and in a way he really was. The interesting thing about him is he was on both sides of it because his business was selling mortgages and he was beholden to the lenders. I think what you see in the film, in a bigger sense, is our kind of addiction to consumerism, and that is also part of the American character and part of what led us to this crash.
There was a startling amount of dog poop around that house.
They had a lot of dogs, and they never insisted that they go outside. When things were booming, they had carpet cleaners who would come every week and they had a huge staff that cleaned up after their dogs. So for me it was really symbolic of the un-sustainability of the infrastructure that we build — you build a huge house or you build a 52-story building that's based on cheap financing that can't sustain itself without that — we took so much for granted.
We'll see you in court
Before Laura Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles" even premiered at Sundance, one of its main subjects, timeshare mogul David Siegel, was already suing her for defamation over the film's characterization of his company, Westgate Resorts. However, Jackie continues to support and promote the film.
"I was really surprised by David’s reaction because of course as you can see from the film, it was done with complete cooperation and access and I was always there at their invitation and the whole film is told in the subjects’ own words," Greenfield says.
And despite the tensions seen onscreen between the couple, Greenfield says Jackie and David Siegel are at peace with their differing views on the film.
" They have a kind of relationship where they can agree to disagree on some things. And she has come to the premier and all the festivals with David’s blessing and I think they just have different feelings about the film and I think his is driven by business interest more than a personal reaction to the film."
According to the Wrap, Siegel sent a letter this week to Greenfield's attorney and the film's distributor, Magnolia Pictures, requesting new text be added to the end of the film clearing up the current state of the company and Versailles. "We would like no more than 26 words added to the already existing postscript at the end of the Lauren's film just to clear up the misimpressions audiences are left hanging with," Siegel says in the letter. "What you call a documentary, I call a 'Real Housewives of Orlando' pilot."