For more than a decade now, photographer Lauren Greenfield has been chronicling the ugly side of beauty, the gritty part of fame, and more destitution of easy money. With the release on July 20 of her latest project, the documentary The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield is adding another layer, perhaps the richest yet, about the downside of the American Dream.
It stars Jackie and David Siegel, billionaires whose empire was built with the money from a vacation-time-share business and who took wealth and materialism to an extreme on par—as the documentary’s title suggests—with Louis XVI. When Greenfield met the Siegels in 2007, they were proudly building the largest home in America—a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion in Orlando inspired by the chateau in Ile-de-France as well as the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. David’s company had just built its biggest time-share opportunity yet, also in Vegas, where he could boast about having the biggest and brightest sign on the Strip.
But it all came to a screeching halt with the crash of 2008.
“It starts with these people in this outsized life, but by the end of the movie, they come down to earth even though their proportions are different,” Greenfield said. “This is really an allegory about the consequences of getting too big and borrowing too much money.”
The Siegels are just one colorful chapter in the story of consumerism that has fascinated Greenfield. She chronicled the devastating impact of the economic crisis on working-class families in 2008 when she took a tour of foreclosure cities in the Inland Empire in Southern California. She trained her camera’s eye on the formerly quaint cul-de-sacs, now ghost towns, where lava-rock waterfalls ran dry and pools had turned green, soccer trophies lay scattered about and mortgage papers fluttered around empty rooms. It was as if the people who lived there had been sucked into a spaceship and disappeared without a proper goodbye.
“It was the American nightmare,” said Greenfield. “The trauma was revealing itself.”
Known for her intensely personal work, Greenfield was able to insert herself into the Siegels’ lives for three years. Fortunately for her, their 26,000-square-foot Florida “starter mansion” was large enough that she and her crew could almost blend into the gilded furniture.
“We became part of the fabric,” she said. “There were so many non-family members in that house that our presence was not a surprise.”
But even better, Greenfield was still given full access when the crash took David Siegel’s empire to the brink. And so while she is empathetic, Greenfield’s eye does not blink. She shows us the nitty gritty—from accumulated dog poop on the mansion’s floors because the maids had been fired to Jackie’s desperate attempts to stay young and attractive by getting painful injections, peels, and showing off her surgically enhanced cleavage while wandering around her massive home in a silk bathrobe.
The Siegels have reacted differently to the film. While Jackie attended the premiere at Sundance and held Greenfield’s hand as the film played, David sued Greenfield and others involved with the film, alleging defamation. Attempts to reach the Siegels were not successful.
But Greenfield is unperturbed by the suit. After years of chronicling people in extremes—kids and media in Fast Forward, anorexic girls in Thin, and victims of fashion in Beauty Culture—Greenfield is in her element among people close to the edge.
“I like people and getting into their lives and seeing what makes them tick,” she said.
She went to Crossroads, a very expensive, alternative high school in Santa Monica, Calif., where she saw that influence of wealth and materialism firsthand. But she was raised in Venice communes by academic parents when it was still Dogtown—full of skaters, hippies, artists, and druggies. Many of her high-school friends were not allowed to visit her at night.
After graduating from Harvard, Greenfield entered the world of photography with one eye on anthropology and sociology. She learned through an internship at National Geographic that pictures can indeed tell a story. But as she hiked deep in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, on her first assignment, she struggled to understand and get access to the Mayan Indians of the village—they believed that a camera can take a person’s soul.
And that was when she had an epiphany: Why not photograph her own tribe? She could not take a person’s soul but her camera could capture it.
“I was an outsider, but I was also very vulnerable to it,” she said. “I cared about being popular and what other kids cared about. Fast Forward was not about L.A. but about how you grow up quickly in a media-saturated culture. In L.A. it is really more on the surface, but kids see the values in our society more clearly.”
While she is captivated by money and fashion’s influence on people, Greenfield, 46, seems strikingly unlike her subjects. She wears little makeup, her hair is worn naturally kinky, and on this day she wears a simple white T-shirt and a jean skirt. She and her husband Frank Evers met at Harvard as undergrads and have made a life together, with their two children, through Greenfield’s documentaries and photojournalism. Evers also founded Institute, an agency that represents photographers and artists. She and Evers have lived in their remodeled Venice house a few blocks from the beach since 1997.
Her work covers the walls of her airy and cluttered Venice studio. A disturbing image from Thin, of a girl with an emaciated body and an outsize balloonlike head, pops out of a black frame. A supporting staff of three work busily on their computers or answer the phone.
Works from photographers who inspired her, such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, hang in their living room and dining room.
Like those photographers, famous for their street verité style, Greenfield has spent her career capturing moments that say so much about a specific time and culture—bright red lips getting a shot of collagen or a 3-year-old girl in a tutu lounging on a couch at the opening of a Barney’s in Beverly Hills.
Her next project, scheduled for release next spring, is called Wealth: The Influence of Affluence, a collection of her work that examines the connection between consumerism and the American Dream and the role of the media and marketing in exporting it globally. For more than a decade, she traveled all over the world to capture the immense power of American consumerism in countries such as China, Dubai, and Ireland.
So while Jackie and David Siegel on the surface seem to be an anomaly, an example of America’s 1 percent, they are symbols of something universal.
“The Queen of Versailles, in this one family’s story, brought together all of the themes I had been working on for a long time,” said Greenfield. “I was looking for moments and stories that reveal the bigger culture we live in. I wanted to show our values as Americans—both the virtues and the flaws…The economic crisis also turned a lot of my work into a kind of a morality tale.”