Living the American Dream

The Queen of Versailles started off as a documentary about self-made billionaires David and Jacqueline Siegel, and their extraordinary quest to build a 90,000 sq. ft. mansion in the style of the chateau in Ile-de-France and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. But when the 2008 financial crash shook the foundation of their time-share company, Westgate Resorts, the film became about a family forced to adapt their lifestyle and battle hardship.

At the end of the screening the audience showed their appreciation with a rousing round of applause. Then Greenfield explained how she had stumbled upon the story whilst photographing Donatella Versace for Elle magazine.

“I had been working on my photography, on a project about wealth and consumerism and the American dream for many years . . . and was interested specifically in this connection between the American dream and home ownership. And so when Jacquie said she was building the biggest house in America that was exciting for me.”

She described how the film took a turn when the Siegels were forced to put their dream house on the market.

“It became clear that their story was a kind of super-sized version of what so many people had gone through in the financial crisis.”

An audience member wanted to know how much time she had spent with the family and how long it took to gain their trust.

“We filmed it in 10 trips – it was about 70 days altogether. . . . In the first scene . . . you see how Jacquie is presenting for camera and her poses and she has full makeup and . . . David is boastful . . . and he is sitting on the throne. And as the film progresses the interviews really change. . . . They become more and more real and more and more honest.”

Greenfield attributes the success of the film to the family’s ability to live honestly in front of the camera. The audience complimented her on the richness of the images and asked what she was aiming for in the aesthetics of the film.

“I feel like it’s the first film where I was able to bring the aesthetics and sociological voice of my photography to the film medium. . . . I worked really closely with the DP (director of photography).”

The audience also wanted to find out about the Siegels’ reaction to the film.

“A week before the film premiered at Sundance, David Siegel sued myself and Sundance for defamation . . . based on the Sundance press release that called it a ‘riches to rags’ story – without realising that that was a quote from him.”

Greenfield explained that the lawsuit was unsuccessful. Jacqueline, she said, has been supporting and promoting the movie.

The film is now available on DVD.