The Queen of Versailles ought to start with a disclaimer: "WARNING: This film may test your ability to laugh at the misfortune of assholes." Photojournalist Lauren Greenfield's documentary follows aging beauty queen Jackie Siegel, her billionaire timeshare magnate husband David, and their large brood of children, nannies, and constantly defecating dogs on an ill-timed mission to build America's largest home on the eve of America's second-largest economic crisis. Yet, because Greenfield tempers her irony with generosity, she has it both ways, capturing the Siegels, in all of their Gatsby-esque hubris, not merely as the most deserving recipients of poetic justice ever but as something even more disturbing: us. David Siegel, for one, is not pleased — he's suing Greenfield for defamation. I spoke with her about the film and the takeaway lesson for everyone but its subject.
HOW MUCH OF WHAT WE SEE OF THE SIEGELS, AND OF JACKIE, IS REAL, AS OPPOSED TO A PERFORMANCE OR AN IDEAL OF OPULENCE THAT THEY'RE TRYING TO EMBODY?
When I went to Binghamton [New York] and talked to people who'd known her since she was little, there were a couple of common themes. One was that she was always beautiful in this otherworldly way, like a head turner that got a certain kind of attention. That attention became part of her identity and her currency in the world. They also said she was ambitious, and she was never going to stay in this small town and always had big plans. She is really smart. It's an interesting comment on our culture too that she learned at an early age that her engineering degree wasn't going to get her as far as her beauty in terms of where she wanted to go.
Like many of the characters of the film, Jackie is full of contradictions. She's someone who likes to pose for the camera, but she's also incredibly genuine. In one of the conversations I had with her on one of the last shoots, she was asking me if the story was going to be about what happened to them, the financial crisis, how they lost everything, and I was telling her about the journey of the film, and how it was going to reflect that, and she said, "Well, I'm myself. I'm always myself." That's what you saw, and I think that's right.
SHOULD WE BE LAUGHING AT THEIR EXCESS AND THEIR BAD LUCK?
Well, I think that feeling is what brings us into the movie. We think it's going to be a romp, a comedy, the vicarious pleasure that we see in other places, like reality TV. A look at people who are unlike us. As that draws you in, it takes you down an unexpected road, where by the end you're like, "Oh, maybe I did spend too much on that shopping trip. Maybe I did pull too much money out of my house. Or maybe this is about our values as Americans, and not something where we can laugh at the Other or criticize the Other."
From my point of view, there's not that much value in something that strictly operates on that level. In other words, my work has never about judging or pointing the finger. What's more interesting is to look at stories or characters and what they reveal about our culture and our values and how they relate to us on a bigger level.