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Greenfield Talks Sundance Hit 'Queen of Versailles': A Microcosm of the 1%

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood July 19, 2012 at 4:18PM

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. The Sundance doc was scooped up by Magnolia, which opens it Friday.
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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."

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentaries


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.