Interview with Lauren Greenfield, Director of Queen of Versailles

Features
by Melissa Silverstein
July 20, 2012 12:51 PM
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In some ways this movie's subtitle is revenge of the 99%.  The film gives you a behind the scenes look of an absurdly wealthy couple -- David and Jackie Siegel-- who are building the largest house in America.  10 kitchens, including a sushi kitchen and a baseball field.  Things most people could never dream of.   Director Lauren Greenfield brings us into their world of private jets and stretch limos and one of the most surprising things of this allegory of the financial crisis is how much you like Jackie.  She's totally engaging, and even though she's rich beyond any of our comprehension, she still feels real.  Granted she has nannies, maids and drivers taking care of her and her family but you never get a sense that she feels she is better than anyone else.   That's one reason why the film works so well.

When the financial crisis hits she does not understand the magnitude of the family's exposure but since she came from no money she figures she could get by on much less than she has now.  Her problem is scale - what is much less when you always have everything you want?  The film shows her conflict and how both she and David handle the crisis.  She's in denial and he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders.  The film takes you inside the recession at the highest level, and as you can imagine, at times it is not a very pretty picture.

Women and Hollywood:  Where does the story come from?

Lauren Greenfield: It really came out of my photography.  I've been a documentary photographer for much longer than I have been a filmmaker.  I focus on a lot of women's issues.  I did a book called Girl Culture and a film called Beauty Culture, and for many years I've been working on a project about wealth and consumerism. 

I was photographing Donatella Versace in Beverly Hills because she was opening a new store.  Jackie Siegel was there because in 2007 she was one of Donatella's best customers.  Jackie told me she was building the biggest house in America which immediately intrigued me.  I was interested  in this connection between the American dream and home ownership and how in the boom your home became more than just place to live and raise your family.  It was an expression of self and identity and success.

So I went to start filming.  I was interested in a cinema verite life unfolding of the wealth with the backdrop being the building of the biggest house in America.

WaH: Talk about your transition from photography to film.

LG: I'm still doing both.  All my film ideas and subjects have come from photography.  My photography allows me to tell other stories and the Queen of Versailles was a way to tell this allegory about the consequences of the culture of consumerism and the financial crisis.  

It wasn't until 2006 which was 14 years after I started working as a photographer that I got the opportunity to make a film.  It really came from the success of Girl Culture.  I brought that book to HBO with RJ Cutler and they agreed to do a feature length documentary on eating disorders.  That appealed to me because I looked at the whole gamut of the project and eating disorders was the most pathological and the most extreme and a compelling example of how girls  use their bodies as their voice.  I am very lucky that my first film was fully commissioned by HBO. 

WaH: Talk about the title - Jackie is almost an object in certain respects in this movie.  She seems at times to be like one of David's possessions but her wonderful personality shines through.

LG: I think that's the surprise about Jackie.  Part of why I put her background as an engineer in the front of the movie is because it changes the way you think about her. You realize that she is in control of these choices and she decided at a young age that she could get further in her life through her beauty than through her engineering degree.  There is this great quote which I had to leave on the cutting room floor from the minister in her home town where he says "Jackie knows how to trade", and he talks about how she trades on her beauty and how she trades on her wealth.  I think that she is very genuine and what you see in the movie is a kind of reversal.  In the beginning you don't know what the basis of her relationship with David is.  Is she in it for love or is she in it for money?  He's 30 years older, he's a billionaire and he seems to be head over heels in love with her and she was a little bit more reluctant.  But by the end you realize that she really loves him and really yearns for his affection and attention which is really harder and harder to get as the financial pressure escalate. 

WaH: Why do you think the film has become so controversial?

LG: I don't know about controversial but I think it has become a piece of conversation because of where we are in this country.  I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to show it to the Secretary of Housing and the whole department of Housing and Urban Development There are problems we are not yet through and so to have a chance to see this allegory about what we've gone through and see it in these big terms that are also comedic with a kind of better you than me feeling is interesting.

WaH: Maybe controversy is not the right word.  I've read about the lawsuit and I feel that David did it to himself.  He said everything in the movie and you really hate him when he talks about how he got George W.  Bush elected.  He has this sense of entitlement and comes off as an ass.

LG: I disagree with that.  The surprise for audience is that they have empathy for even David.

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