Jackie Siegel in "The Queen of Versailles"
Los Angeles Times Jackie Siegel in "The Queen of Versailles"

Photographer Lauren Greenfield lucked out with "Queen of Versailles," her second feature documentary. Her instincts drew her to forge a connection at a 2007 party with billionaire trophy wife Jackie Siegel, one of Versace's best customers, and to follow her around with a camera. (One photo of her blingy gold and silver purses was one of Time's pictures of the year.)

Greenfield had no idea that this gregarious silicone-busty blonde with seven children--whose Florida real estate mogul husband David was building a 90,000-square-foot Versailles, the biggest house in America, the embodiment of the American Dream--was about to hit the 2008 financial crisis skids. "I was intrigued by their wealth and lifestyle," says Greenfield in a phone interview. "It had a fantasy quality. She had an accessible, down to earth and open personality, which was unusual for a rich person."

Initially Greenfield, who had directed HBO's "Thin," thought she was doing an Upstairs/Downstairs portrait of 1% supersized wealth run amuck, from private jets and limos to servants and hangers-on. That's how it starts. But the final movie, funded by Danish money and the BBC and buttressed by a Sundance Institute Lab, is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of the "riches to rags" slide of an American family. Like a train wreck, it is compulsively watchable, and it reveals much about what's wrong with our sick nation.

Siegel's husband, Westgate Resorts timeshare king David Siegel, was so angered by the film's Sundance press materials--which cited his own "riches to rags"quote--that he filed a law suit before Sundance in January. Lawyer Marty Garbus is repping the filmmakers. "None of us think there's any merit to it," says Greenfield, who remains on good terms with Jackie. Despite Greenfield's unflattering portrait, her subject was happy to go to Sundance and subsequent festivals to promote the film. A Sundance hit, the doc was instantly scooped up by Magnolia, which opens it Friday, armed with rave reviews.

Greenfield's cameras kept rolling for ten weeks over three years. Once the 2008 recession hit, she saw that her film was turning into a "morality tale about overreaching," she recalls. "I had a relatively small crew: a director of photography, sound and field producer. As four people we could completely blend in and become a fly on the wall in a house with 26,000 square feet." In fact, the house was so big that they could stay there overnight and create a base camp. When they went to visit Siegel's family home in Binghamton, New York they were reminded of how cramped an ordinary-scale house could be: "We were like bulls in a china shop."