What stuck with me the most after reading Joe Nocera’s New York Times piece about Lauren Greenfield and her documentary The Queen of Versailles—arguably the most important documentary of the year—was her apparent guilt about revealing the subjects for who they really are. In case you haven’t read or heard, Greenfield’s film chronicles the Siegel family—worth a billion dollars and in the midst of building a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion—from 2009 to 2011, right in the teeth of the recent recession. Even more incredible, David Siegel made his fortunes through his timeshare company Westgate Resorts, which sells the majority of their timeshare properties to people who usually cannot afford them. They were cinematically perfect subjects for an examination of the over-consumptive top one-percent in America during a financial meltdown. Greenfield captures the Siegel family’s obliviousness, stubbornness, and gaudy repugnance with equally shocking, sad, and humorous grace, culminating in the loss of one of Westgate’s most prized business assets and the discounted, unfinished hotel-sized home being put up for sale. The film should be a lesson to all of us about wealth and irresponsibility and how history has, once again, repeated itself. Greenfield should be proud.
Yet she seems protective of the Siegels, that there may be some inner turmoil for leading all of us to their palace gates. Part of this may be strategy, due to the defamation lawsuit the still very wealthy and powerful David Siegel filed against Greenfield, among others, a week before The Queen of Versailles premiered at Sundance—even though his wife attended the screening and sat right beside the director. However, it’s these types of contradictions that may give insight into another source of the talented filmmaker’s guilt: are her subjects living metaphors for American overconsumption or just a specific case of filthy rich people who have lost all sense of reality? Greenfield and I chatted about the film in a large empty ballroom of a luxury hotel about how the film came together around her and why she cared what the Siegels ultimately thought.