Not long after she finished documenting large swaths of foreclosed and abandoned homes in Southern California’s Inland Empire for the photo essay “Foreclosure Alley,” Lauren Greenfield found herself in Florida touring what was to be America’s biggest private residence, a 90,000-square-foot mansion built by timeshare magnate David Siegel and his wife, Jackie.
Little did Greenfield, who began her career in photography with a senior thesis project on the French aristocracy, know that in chronicling the construction of the Siegels’ Versailles, she would bear witness to the crumbling of an empire.
“When David’s business started to be really affected by the financial crisis, and they put this house, which had been the focal point for the film, on the market, it raised the story to the level of allegory,” Greenfield tells TakePart. “[It] really became a symbolic tale about the overreaching of America and about the American dream, really looking at how that dream had gotten distorted.”
Indeed, when considering which economic system to embrace, the Founding Fathers probably never envisioned the creation of a home with 30 bathrooms, lined with marble imported from China. But The Queen of Versailles, which earned Greenfield this year’s Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and opens this week in theaters, creates a space beyond the acres reserved for the Siegels’ ambition to create America’s biggest home, and dissects the system that produced such cultural goals.
A family whose outsized wealth was built on the business of selling timeshares, the Siegels resemble a corporation more than a collective bound by blood. A team of maids and nannies tends to the eight Siegel children while sending their paychecks back to their own families in the Phillippines and Latin America. One of the Siegels’ drivers was himself a successful player in real estate before the market crash. David’s son from a previous marriage serves as a vice president in Dad’s company, but claims not to have much of a personal relationship with his father otherwise.
However, The Queen of Versailles has broader implications, examining the rise and fall of David’s business as one built “on easy access to cheap money.” In other words, an endeavor fueling the rash of subprime mortgages that plunged the nation into the financial crisis.
“The thing that was really amazing about the timeshare business is David selling mortgages to people who are lower-income, middle-income people who want to have that aspirational luxury, feel like they have a second home, even though they can’t afford to have a second home all year-around,” says Greenfield. “In a way, he’s selling the same thing that he wants for himself.”
While that aspiration is part of what makes David an American, living beyond his means would seem to make him a modern one, a reflection that Siegel no doubt finds unflattering. The timeshare king pursued a lawsuit against the production for misrepresenting him.
Despite claims of misrepresentation, the inherent truth in The Queen of Versailles should anger all of us, even as it entertains with the absurdity of overabundent wealth. The film depicts a country with its priorities in the wrong place.
The Siegels’ adoptive niece Jonquil, who hails from a broken home, unwittingly conveys the point of the film when she shrugs during an interview and says: “I’ve had a taste of dirt poor and filthy rich.”
In Greenfield’s stunning portrait of a gilded age gone awry, the American dream has become a little less pristine.
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