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The daughter of university professors who ultimately divorced, Greenfield was born in Boston and grew up in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles. After high school she majored in visual anthropology at Harvard, and decided to pursue photography after several unsuccessful attempts to get into film school.
Her first major project was a series of photographs of French aristocracy inspired by a stay with an uppercrust family during a high school year abroad. Coming from Los Angeles, where social class is defined by money, she was fascinated by a society where status is determined by heritage. Lauren’s “French mother” provided her with an entree into the French aristocratic world, where she photographed their “social rituals, dances and coming out parties.” It was the antithesis of the Siegels, who grew up lower-middle class and later became wealthy.
The result was a well received and widely toured photography exhibit called “Survivors of the French Revolution” that established Greenfield’s career. It was followed in 2002 by “Girl Culture,” a book of photographs that became the basis of her first documentary, “Thin,” about women, body image and eating disorders. Two shorter documentaries, photo books and touring exhibits came after, as well as magazine assignments like the one where she met Jackie Siegel.
In “The Queen of Versailles,” Jackie comes off sympathetically — an innocent without artifice who says whatever comes to mind. When the Westgate business and the world economy go south, Jackie is forced to lay off 15 of her staff. She says she never would have had all of her children if she knew one day she’d be down to just three nannies. It sounds terrible, but the woman is completely oblivious to the impact of her words — including what her children will think when they hear them.
The film is replete with similar examples. Forced to give up her private jet, Jackie flies on a commercial airline to her hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. When handed the keys to a Hertz rental car, she asks the befuddled clerk for the name of her driver. Simply put, she is a naive visitor to Planet Reality from the solar system Über-Wealthy.
David, on the other hand, appears more arrogant. Why did he build a 90,000-square-foot house? “Because I could,” he says. Unlike his wife, he’s not oblivious to how that sounds. He is a self-made man who always gets what he wants when he wants it. Because he’s wealthy, he feels entitled to it. His ego is as large as the house he wanted to build. And as for the masses? Let them eat cake.
After the film was completed, Siegel didn’t like the way Greenfield portrayed the decline of his fortunes, so he sued her. He claims that she edited scenes out of the sequence in which they were shot, and made it seem as though the company was going under and that Versailles was kaput. Siegel refused the Forward’s requests for an interview, and calls were referred to Sitrick and Company, a public relations agency. The Sitrick representative said that Westgate has never been more profitable — because it is privately held, that is impossible to confirm — and that construction on Versailles will resume this month. Meanwhile Greenfield claims that Siegel’s “allegations are false” and notes that Jackie was recently with her promoting the film.
But why did the Siegels allow her into their lives in the first place? During the course of shooting the film, Greenfield visited (and usually stayed with) the family around a half-dozen times. At some point it should have been obvious that the couple and their lifestyle were not coming off well. The house was carpeted in dog feces because the pets were never trained to go outside. Before the layoffs, there was always a staffer around to pick up after them. (According to a recent article in The New York Times, Siegel claimed that the problem was caused by the fact that one of the dogs had cancer.) Worse, one of the Filipino nannies lived in a child’s playhouse in the back yard and hadn’t seen her own children in 11 years.
“I think David was proud of building the biggest house in America. But I think it was more Jackie’s thing,” Greenfield posited to explain the access they gave her. “I think she liked me and liked the attention and liked being in front of the camera. Also, I think she was proud of what she accomplished and where she was in life.”
Greenfield treats the couple with surprising sympathy considering their excesses. “I try to be non-judgmental when I’m working,” she said. “I’m more interested in ‘Why is this happening?’ and ‘What does it say about us?’ I don’t want to idealize them, either. What was interesting about them is that in some ways they represented both the virtues and the flaws of the American dream.”
Though Greenfield is Jewish — she’s in early stages of planning her son’s bar mitzvah next year — and so, it seems, are the Siegels, she said that she didn’t consider portraying Jews as the vulgar nouveau riche. “I started the story about Jackie and religion wasn’t part of the equation,” she said. “I never let [being Jewish] influence me in my projects.”
“Queen of Versailles” may not have Jewish significance for Greenfield, but she also said its message is applicable not just to the super-rich. “It really is a morality tale about overreaching,” she said. “I think their story shows the consequences of going too far; it’s a lesson not just for rich people, but for all of us.”
Curt Schleier is a freelance writer who teaches business writing to corporate executives.
“The Queen of Versailles” opens July 20 in New York and Los Angeles and across the rest of the country throughout July and August.