Notes From Sundance

01.20.12

Lauren Greenfield’s New Documentary Like ‘Real Housewife of Sundance’

The director’s gripping film, Queen of Versailles, chronicles how the shaky economy causes the implosion of the American dream for a billionaire Florida family—but the family patriarch is suing for defamation.

Meet the Siegels—pneumatic blonde former swimsuit model Jackie, 43, and her no-guff septuagenarian husband David, aka “the king of timeshares.”

At the outset of director Lauren Greenfield’s gripping documentary, The Queen of Versailles—one of several films that kicked off the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night in lieu of a stand-alone premiere this year—they’re just like any family of Floridian billionaires you might meet. With an unwieldy brood of eight kids, the Siegels live in a garish mansion the size of a shopping mall, and travel everywhere by private jet, limo or yacht, a yelping pack of snow-white Pomeranians in tow.

As the cameras begin to roll on this family circus, Jackie and David have set out to build the biggest house in America, a 90,000-square-foot palace loosely modeled on French King Louis XIV’s 17th century estate, Versailles. One with its own baseball and tennis stadiums, stained-glass clerestory and balcony built expressly for the future use of an in-house symphony orchestra.

But while the movie initially may come off like some super-sized take on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Versailles evolves into a minutely observed implosion of the American Dream. It arrives in this high-profile slot at America’s preeminent independent film festival packed with a startling amount of genuine pathos over a predicament not commonly associated with the nation’s reviled 1 percent: losing everything because of the shaky economy.

Further, in keeping with Robert Redford’s introductory remarks about Versailles, the movie stands as the kind of earnest and unflinching effort that indie audiences have come to associate with Sundance over its 28-year history—minus, of course, the attendant swag suites and ambush marketing blitzkriegs that have proliferated here in recent years. “Sometimes the point of who we are and what we do gets blurred,” Redford said. “So I just want to point out that we are about the independent filmmaking artists. We always have been and we always will be.”

Greenfield, an acclaimed Los Angeles-based photographer-turned-director (who has screened her previous films, THIN and Kids + Money at Sundance), met the Siegels on assignment for Elle magazine and, realizing their potential as documentary subjects, won the family’s trust enough to begin filming in 2008.

But after just a short time, the global financial crash torpedoed David’s megabuck luxury hotel and timeshare business, Westgate Resorts Ltd. (one of whose hotels, in a strange twist of kismet, your humble correspondent happens to be shacked-up in while in Park City). The spigot of cash turned off for Siegel just as he was mounting his most ambitious and personal project to date: a half-billion-dollar, hotel-casino-timeshare-retail complex on the Las Vegas strip. With Siegel’s business dangerously dependent on the sub-prime mortgage boom and rapacious bankers closing in from every side, the family’s lifestyle of limitless luxury and conspicuous consumption is shown going to the dogs.

Literally. The children’s menagerie of lizards, snakes and fish are depicted dying untimely deaths, servants are laid off by the dozen, and Pomeranian turd bombs turn up with alarming frequency toward Versailles’ final third. Even more poignantly, the half-finished but still uninhabitable Versailles grows dilapidated with neglect and is threatened with foreclosure: a potent metaphor for the family’s boom-bust cycle.

“When [filming] started, it was more of a cinema verité look at wealth and them building the biggest house in America,” Greenfield explained during a Q&A after the premiere. “And then as things started to happen with the financial crisis, the tone of the film definitely changed. In the end, it brought out something a lot more meaningful than the film I set out to make.”

But that hasn’t necessarily endeared the film—or its Sundance debut—to all Greenfield’s subjects. Although Jackie Siegel showed up for the premiere on Thursday with her ample anatomy spilling out of a barely-there cheetah-pattern minidress at Park City’s Eccles Theater, David Siegel was a no-show. He had expressed his contempt for the movie and its festival berth earlier this month in a defamation lawsuit filed in Florida federal court against Greenfield, executive producer Frank Evers, and the Sundance Institute. The court filing basically accuses the defendants of abusing Siegel’s generosity and then defaming him, financially imperiling Westgate.

One primary sticking point for David Siegel appears to be a description of his family’s economic plight provided in a Sundance press release: “Their rags-to-riches-to-rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.”

It arrives packed with genuine pathos over a predicament not commonly associated with the reviled 1 percent: losing everything.

Greenfield agreed to change the wording, but Siegel continued to object to the characterization—which has appeared on more than 12,000 websites—that his business had collapsed and that he represented a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story.

“Sundance’s, Greenfield’s and Evers’ continued campaign and proliferation of false and defamatory statements regarding Siegel and Westgate is motivated by ill will and malice and at the very least with a reckless regard for the truth,” the lawsuit alleges.

Asked about the court filing by an audience member at the premiere who also questioned Jackie’s stake in the matter, Greenfield kept schtum. “I think that’s a question we can’t answer right now,” she said. “It’s active litigation and Jackie’s seeing it for the first time right now. So I’d like to give her a little time to absorb the film before we ask questions.”