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'Queen' documentary takes unusual route to screen

Charles Ealy
Lauren Greenfield says people might empathize with the subjects of her film.

Jackie Siegel loves Donatella Versace. She's one of the fashion designer's biggest customers. So when Versace threw a big party in Beverly Hills, Calif., it was only natural that the flamboyant wife of Orlando time-share king David Siegel would be there.

Also on hand for the shindig was Lauren Greenfield, a documentary maker who says she was "working on a photography project that was going to be a book about wealth and consumerism." Time magazine eventually published a Greenfield photo from the party — that of Jackie Siegel's elaborate, gold Versace purse — to accompany an article titled "The New Gilded Age" in 2007.

At the party, Jackie Siegel obviously liked the attention, and she began telling Greenfield about her latest project with her husband — building the largest house in the United States, just outside Orlando, Fla.

"I had long been interested in the connection between home ownership and the American Dream," Greenfield says, "and this was the ultimate manifestation of that."

So Greenfield broached the subject of making a documentary about the Siegels' dream home. Both Jackie and David Siegel signed off on the project, and Greenfield and her team started making "The Queen of Versailles" in April 2009.

The economic crash of 2008 had already happened, but Greenfield says she "never dreamed that the Siegels would be affected. And it did take some time for them to be affected," she says. But when the repercussions stalled the Siegels' grandiose plans, Greenfield says she started to see their story "as much more universal. Despite its epic proportions, it was an allegory for the overreaching of America."

Greenfield says she's very grateful that the Siegels didn't halt the filming once their fortunes began to change. "They were amazing about that," she says, "and I was very grateful. ... The access really deepened over time, with an evolution in the intimacy in the interviews."

As with most documentaries, the Siegels signed standard releases. But Greenfield says "there wasn't any contractual agreement that they had to stay with the project. Every trip, I would talk to them about when I wanted to come. ... It was a highly cooperative situation. We filmed 10 times."

The movie begins with a photo shoot of the Siegels, who present themselves to the camera as a regal couple. Their poses mimic those of the oil paintings of the couple that fill the walls of their current home. "I loved the portraits of themselves," Greenfield says, "and I was really interested in the aspirational monarchy of the new rich. She's a beauty queen and he's a time-share king, and they're building a castle. It's very evocative and epic."

But by the end of the movie, "that façade and posturing really disappears," Greenfield says. "In the first interview, David is kind of boasting, and by the end, he is speaking incredibly candidly, in a back-and-forth conversation. He made himself very vulnerable by sharing his story at a vulnerable point of his life. That was very endearing. That made me want to tell the story with the most empathy as possible."

Greenfield says she thinks people will go into the movie "expecting to hate the characters." But she says that many "are surprised that they have empathy by the end, particularly for Jackie. And part of that is Jackie's lack of pretension."

Greenfield says she hopes audiences will appreciate the Siegels "as characters who show us our virtues and our flaws, through their own virtues and flaws."

"I don't want to idealize them. ... They certainly have a very excessive lifestyle," she says, "and their ultimately wanting to go bigger and bigger provides the seeds of their undoing. What I take from that is a lesson that we can apply to ourselves. We all overreach."

Greenfield realizes that the Siegels made themselves unusually vulnerable. "Rich people have been documented by portraiture or works that they control or society pictures that show them in their environment," she says, "but the powerful haven't been the subject of cinema verite," as they are in "The Queen of Versailles."

Perhaps that's why David Siegel isn't pleased with the movie. He has filed a defamation lawsuit.

"It's an active lawsuit," Greenfield says, noting that she can't answer questions in detail. But she says that David Siegel "doesn't like where the movie ended ... on a painful note" when he loses his $600 million time-share resort in Las Vegas.

But Greenfield notes that Jackie Siegel is still coming to premiere parties as "The Queen of Versailles" opens around the country. As the documentary makes clear, it'll take much more than a financial setback to keep Jackie Siegel out of the limelight.

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931.