Cheap Money: Lauren Greenfield on The Queen of Versailles
In an economic crisis, people may just want to laugh at rich people getting payback for screwing them over. The documentary film The Queen of Versailles promises to show the Siegel family’s downfall, but filmmaker Lauren Greenfield also shows audiences they’re not just villains. Jackie Siegel is married to time share mogul David Siegel, who provides such an affluent lifestyle that he’s building her a replica of the castle Versailles on some Florida land. That is until the economic crisis of 2008 shatters his business plan for timeshares in Las Vegas. Before we leave for Comic Con this week, we got to speak with Greenfield by phone to analyze the Siegel’s situation and talk about some specific moments that raise eyebrows in the film. The Queen of Versailles opens July 20.
CraveOnline: You’ve said this film is examining the American dream. When did the American dream become getting something for nothing and taking more than you need? Didn’t it used to be working hard to get ahead?
Lauren Greenfield: Well, this is a little bit of both because David Siegel is also that part of the American dream in the sense that he came up from nothing and has a kind of amazing story of building this fortune. But I think the film is really about where this dream got distorted in terms of our values and when is enough enough, or when is too much enough. I think what happened, and I had a really interesting experience a couple weeks ago when I showed the film to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Secretary of Housing. The Secretary of Housing talked about how it was about values. I think the American Dream has always been intertwined with this idea of owning one’s own house and that being the symbol of success for us. It seemed like in the era of cheap financing and in the boom times, this house got bigger and bigger and also became more and more symbolic. You have “MTV Cribs” and the cult of Do Well Mag and shelter magazines. Even for middle class people the house became this expression of self and success, so for me starting this project, the family building the biggest house in America was a really interesting way to look at that dream and where it has gone, where it expanded to. Then when the turn in the film happens and even this billionaire family looks at losing their house, looks at giving up this dream, looks at the possibility of foreclosure, at that point the story really became a symbolic allegory about the over-reaching of America and about how we had gotten off track in terms of our values and where this dream had gone.
Where do you think it gets distorted, when David Siegel sells mortgages for securities? At one point he had everything paid for.
Right, and he speaks that morality lesson at the end. I was really glad that it got to be in David’s own words where he says, “If I had been happy with 15 resorts instead of 28, this never would’ve happened.” Basically where he made the mistake by his own admission is by personally signing for all the business loans and then never taking anything off the table. So he became completely beholden to the lenders. In David Siegel’s story, it was the building in Vegas. It was taking on a 600 million plus construction project at the height of the boom that was dependent on financing. If he hadn’t built that, he did have so much wealth that he could’ve financed all of his sales and all of his business without going to the banks. I think the interesting thing for me in looking at his story as a metaphor for the housing crisis is that David Siegel was on both sides of the equation. He was both selling mortgages to people who it was questionable whether they could afford it, and also he was buying into this idea of aspirational luxury, the idea that you could own a second home even if you can’t own it all year round. You can own it for one week. And then he was also building for himself this even bigger aspirational luxury but similar in some ways.
Maybe I was unclear, but I thought they sold all the units in Vegas, and all those buyers paid their down payments. So he had real money for those but he turned them into securities and that’s where his $390 million debt came from?
No, not exactly. So a lot of Vegas did not sell. Basically the $390 million dollars was his own money that he put into the building of Vegas, so that was what he lost when he gave up possession of Vegas. Really, the reasons Vegas was so important were threefold. One was he had his life savings into it, $390 million. He was looking at gaining two billion in profit if it was successful. Then there was this other immeasurable piece which I think was also really important, which was the emotional connection to Vegas because of his parents who were also gamblers. David wasn’t a gambler in Las Vegas in the casinos but he did gamble on this building.
Did his son Richard learn something too? In the beginning he says he considers the time share buyers moochers for taking their free lunch, and by the end he says money was an addiction and lenders were the pushers.
I think that they are on both sides of it and it’s hard to tell what people have learned. I think that’s how they felt on their side and they felt that basically everybody got addicted to cheap money. That’s exactly what happened and I’ve been working on a project about wealth for many years in my photography and I photographed that in a lot of different ways. I photographed the foreclosure cities in California and the Inland Empire where the same thing happened to middle class and working class people, and same with Dubai and the crash in Dubai which I also photographed. The same way in Ireland which I also photographed. People got addicted to cheap money and what it allowed them to do, both to better their own lifestyle and also to speculate. People like Cliff and the minor characters in The Queen of Versailles really speak to that story for me. Cliff the limo driver bought 19 homes speculatively to make money and then ended up losing them all. So I think Richard is speaking about it, in that scene, from their own perspective. They got addicted to cheap money because they saw how much money they could make with it. They went for it. They built these big buildings but it was all based on cheap money. So then when that money stopped and when they couldn’t go to the bank and securitize their mortgages for cash, that created a crisis in the business.
Is this crisis recoverable?
For us in America? I don't know. It was really interesting to have that time with the Secretary of Housing and show him the film. I think that in terms of the economy and the housing crisis, we’re not out of the water. The government is dealing with that now in terms of how to keep people in their homes and how to deal with all the toxic debt. I think the interesting thing about David was he was victim to it to. He was on both sides, he was both victim and perpetrator but in a lot of ways, he was victimized by Bank of America the same way Tina Martinez with her little house and losing her house over originally owing $1700 was.
You started filming the Siegels before the 2008 crisis, right?
I actually met Jackie in 2007 when they were building the house and I photographed her then, but I actually didn’t start filming until the early part of 2009, at which point their lifestyle was still intact. I never dreamed that people at this level, billionaires, would be affected by the crisis and when I started. They were the people that [I thought] would never be affected in any significant way. So I was shocked. In the beginning actually when I started, I started through Jackie and I didn’t even know what David’s business was. It was really after they started having troubles that I got interested in what the time share business was and what that meant for the story and for what became an allegory. They had to put their Versailles house on the market in the middle of 2010, so that was really when the story changed.
You have a very nice tone with the way you shoot their extravagances. We see their paintings, thrones, bathtubs and triple refrigerators. Were there any novelties you left out?
[Laughs] You mean what’s on the cutting room floor? I shot about 200 hours of film over three years. There’s tons of stuff on the cutting room floor.
When you shot those extravagances, did you want to have a sense of irony so it wasn’t just laughing at the Siegels?
Definitely. The thing I always really liked about David and Jackie and their story was their kind of down to earth American quality and lack of snobbishness and lack of airs. I think that’s one of the things that really drew me to Jackie and we remain close. She is not like a typical rich person. She loves the stuff. She loves the fantasy life, the jets, the castles and all of that, but she somehow also keeps this kind of down to earth accessibility which makes me think of what a lot of people would be like if they came into money. She always seamlessly went between Versace and Wal-Mart, between McDonald’s and caviar. And I think in a way that’s why she was so strong when it came to dealing with the change in her lifestyle. Then I think also the fact that she came from humble origins, she had this kind of survivor quality that I think equipped her in a way for what was to come.
The Hertz scene seemed like a moment that was too good to be sure. Is there any chance she was playing it up when she asked the rental car clerk for a driver?
I know, that was amazing. Jackie is so full of contradictions because she is a beauty queen who also has an engineering degree, so I think she is really smart, and then she also comes out with things where you kind of can’t quite believe she just said that. I think she lives in these dual worlds. I think the Hertz scene was incredible. She just said that but she talked more than once about what it was like for her kids to fly commercial for the first time. So I think that was very real I think when she’s talking about the change in lifestyle. I watched it with her a couple weeks ago at SilverDocs and when the luggage came around in that same scene right before she goes to Hertz, she said, “I can’t believe I checked that Louis Vuitton luggage on a commercial flight.” Do you get it? So even now having seen the film multiple times, that was her reaction. I think she was dealing with this change in her lifestyle and she was reacting to it. I think she also has a good sense of humor.
She did have a driver’s license to drive the Hertz car, right?
She does have a driver’s license but in three years I never saw her drive herself. She does not usually drive. I never saw her drive herself.
So who drove the Hertz car?
She had some family members with her. We were even at a film festival a couple weeks ago and she had a driver. She always has a driver, whether it’s Cliff or somebody else.
I also noticed there’s a lot of feet in this movie.
Which scene are you talking about?
Oh, you frame her feet in a lot of the interviews and she’s always walking around barefoot.
Hmm. That’s interesting. Well, you’re calling my attention to that for the first time, not a conscious thing but in my photography I often photograph shoes and purses and details. In fact the way I got to know Jackie was I was photographing her at an event for Donatella Versace and I made a picture of her gold blingy purse and two other purses. It became a Time magazine Picture of the Year and that’s part of how we stayed in touch. In my book Girl Culture, there’s also a classic picture of a woman’s feet in Gucci shoes looking pained. I often do photograph feet and hands and details, but I didn’t notice that specifically. Now that you bring it up, I think it is important in the sense of in the opening sequence, David walks in from the car with stockinged feet, just in stocks, and says, “My kids took my shoes and I have to go barefoot.” So in a way that’s kind of a foreshadowing of what ends up happening. Then for Jackie, there is significance in the final scene when she’s barefoot because Jackie is a former model and she’s somebody who likes to pose for the camera. That’s why I chose to begin the film with my photo shoot of David and Jackie on the gold chair. They’re posing and then you see the moments in between their pose and it brings up this question, what is posturing and what is real? That is also emphasized with the portraits that you mentioned, the portraits in the home, their Christmas photographs, their commissioned paintings of themselves often with references to royalty or Greek mythology. Then by the end, Jackie has really let down that guard, the interviews with both Jackie and David are much more intimate. By the end, I’m filming Jackie getting her face lasered or the dermatological treatment on her face where they’re taking off layers and layers of skin. Then in the very last scene she has no makeup on and she’s barefoot. So I think being barefoot in that scene is important symbolically.
Was it hard to be around the animal neglect in that house?
You know, I can’t say it was hard in the sense of I’m just interested in all of these things. There was something about being in Jackie’s space and in that house that was so much fun and part of it is all the activity and the kids and the animals and this kind of crazy chaotic atmosphere. It was sad but I didn’t personally know those [animals.] I was almost like David who says in the scene, “I didn’t even know we had a lizard.” By the time I was seeing the lizard dying, I’m just getting acquainted with the lizard. The first time I was there, I filmed Chanel, the past dog taxidermied in the case and I was like wow, there’s a taxidermied dog here. I made a picture of one of the live dogs coming to the case and looking in and I actually just found out that Jackie, that that live dog who’s in my photograph looking at the case, is the same dog that ended up on the piano as a skin. So I was amazed but I think the thing that was definitely emotional, being there I felt that emotion pretty intensely, was the strain and stress of the household after things really started to change. The animals were very much a part of that but at the time I in a way felt more for the children than the animals.
That was my other question. How are the kids doing now? One of them would be college age, right?
Jonquil graduated and she wants to be a sign language interpreter. I haven’t been to the house since last November so I can’t really speak to what they’re doing now but I think it was a hard time and I think that things have stabilized. Once David gave up Vegas, the lenders continued to lend and allowed the business to stabilize. I think things are calmed down for the kids.
Did you ever step in any of the dog doodie they left lying around?
I did. Not the dog doo, I stepped in pee pee. In a way, that was how I became conscious of it was I was doing an interview with Jackie and I took off my shoes to just be quiet when I walked around and also just to be comfortable at the end of a long day, and then I stepped in dog pee. My DP was like, “Not sure you should take off your shoes around here.” So actually on that first trip, I don’t even think I filmed it. I just kind of experienced it and then by the next trip, I realized that had to be documented as well.