During the French Revolution Marie Antoinette only lost her head for allegedly decrying: Let them eat cake, and by being oblivious to the reality of the world she lived in. In director Lauren Greenfield’s somewhat disturbingly allegorical documentary, Queen of Versailles, a contemporary Parisian royal couple, this time Floridians David and Jackie Siegel are billionaires dreaming of a building a house in Versailles’ image, until the financial crisis stopped that dream well and truly in its tracks. Not that director Greenfield ever imagined where her film’s journey would lead her. There was no financial crisis when the well-known photographer/director began this cinematic essay into the excesses of the rich and famous. “I met Jackie at a party, randomly, for Donatella Versace, and she was one of her best customers at the time,” Greenfield explains in a Beverly Hills hotel room. “I made a picture of her purse which ended up as one of Time Magazine’s pictures of the year, and she told me about building the biggest house in America.”
The film, which began to take shape at the beginning, explored the titular Queen, Jackie Siegel, former beauty queen and trophy wife to billionaire David Siegel, a self-made billionaire who made his fortune on timeshares. The film follows these two and their family, as they relish in their luxury, only to have it all taken away during the financial crisis. Director Greenfield has been consistently fascinated with America’s obsession with materialism throughout much of her career, “and the influence of popular culture on our values.” Greenfield says it may have come from her childhood. She grew up in Los Angeles, her parents were professors and “I went to a school where there were a lot of Hollywood people, so it was all very flashy and kind of status oriented compared to what I had been used to.” Her first project, interestingly enough, was about the French aristocracy “and looking at this milieu of people who were elite and hjad this class, but did no have money anymore. So in a way, the Queen of Versailles was like going the opposite route: the new rich, an aspirational monarchy, and then in the end, a failed monarchy.”
Greenfield admits that she was shocked at the financial demise of this particular ‘monarchy’, when it came, “because I thought it likely that a billionaire would have a multitude of layers of cushions. In fact, even when things started getting tough with his business, I never thought it would effect them personally and I really didn’t know until 2010 when they had to put the house on the market, how bad it was and it was on that trip that David told me that he’d gambled everything on his business and not put anything aside. He said: ‘I made two mistakes. One, I never took anything off the table, and the other was I personally signed for all of the business loans.’ So he believed so much in the business which I think is what made him and the story so interesting for me, that he WAS the American dream in both its virtues and its flaws. He was a self-made man who believed so much in his business, that he put everything he had into it, to the point of not even putting money aside for college for his kids.”
One of the film’s notable criticisms is the difficulty audiences have in feeling sympathy for characters who personify the 1%, the mega rich who take little responsibility for their actions and fall on their sword as a result. Asked what the challenges were for her Greenfield to make a film, whose protagonists are not necessarily sympathetic, the director pauses and refutes the argument. “What I have been pleased about, talking to audiences, is that people DO have a surprising amount of empathy for the characters, particularly Jackie, and I think the thing that’s surprising about it, is they don’t at the beginning. In the beginning, they wonder who are these people, what is this dream, this crazy and this is the worst of excess. By the end they feel differently about them as they see the stress and strain of the household, and the problems that they have are in a way not all that different from many other people who have financial problems. And I think the key to that is that there’s something in their characters and story that allows you to see your own flaws and your own mistakes. For me their story is really a big version of so many people.
The director had no idea how the film’s narrative would develop, but says that, thematically, the change in the couple’s own narrative, “turned the story into an allegory about the overreaching of America and the mistakes we all made that led to the crash, and the inherent flaws in the American dream as we have conceived it.”
The Queen of Versallies is now in a limited release in LA.