Lauren Greenfield's Sundance Film Festival entry "The Queen of Versailles" tells the story of every American in danger of losing a home amid the economic crisis.
The difference is that the home in question was a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by the excesses of France's Palace of Versailles.
Greenfield's documentary chronicles the financial success of Florida time-share condominium entrepreneur David Siegel and his wife, Jackie, who set out to build the largest house in America at the height of the real-estate bubble.
When the bubble burst, the Siegels had the same rude awakening as millions of others: They had been living easy on borrowed money they now could not repay.
One of the opening-night films Thursday at the Sundance showcase for independent cinema, "Queen of Versailles" presents an intimate portrait of the Siegels' extreme wealth and the hard fall they took as the markets crashed and money dried up in 2008.
"It is a metaphor for what we have all gone through in the economic crisis, and that's what was really compelling to me about the story," Greenfield said in an interview Friday. "It's not a reality show, it's not a gotcha on the 1 percent. It's really looking at their life in the big, kind of epic size that it is, and having that be a window in which to kind of think about what happened to us all."
Greenfield, a photographer whose debut documentary "Thin" premiered at Sundance in 2006, met Jackie Siegel at a photo shoot for fashion designer Donatella Versace. Siegel, who says in the film that she used to spend $1 million a year on clothes, was one of Versace's best customers, and she and Greenfield hit it off right away.
As Siegel described her life _ flying with her eight children on a private jet, building the biggest home in the country _ Greenfield realized the family was an ideal subject for her long-term photographic project on wealth. Greenfield visited the Siegels to shoot photographs and eventually convinced them to let her document their lives and the construction of the house on film.
The documentary starts out like a twist on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," revealing the splendor of the 26,000-square-foot home the Siegels occupied and the gaudy grandeur of the palace they were building that would be nearly four times bigger. Greenfield examines the family business, including its crown jewel, a new time-share tower in Las Vegas, and traces the self-made couple's humble origins before rising to wealth.
When the economy went sour, the Siegels allowed Greenfield to continue her shoot. The film follows them down as they are forced to sell assets, fire employees, fight to avoid foreclosure on their unfinished mansion and struggle to hold onto the Vegas tower.
The marriage grows shaky as the Siegels fight over money. Jackie is unable to rein herself in on a colossal Wal-Mart spending spree, while David balls out the family for leaving all the lights on and threatens to let the power company cut off their electricity.
Jackie Siegel attended the Sundance premiere, but her husband did not. David Siegel is suing Greenfield and the Sundance festival, claiming materials used to promote the documentary are defamatory. Greenfield said she could not comment about the lawsuit.
The indulgence of the Siegels' lives seems absurd, sparking hearty laughter at times from the Sundance audience at the film's premiere. David Siegel proudly proclaims that his reason for building his immense house is simply "because I can," while Jackie Siegel is shown dutifully trying to cut back on expenses by flying commercial and renting her own car, then learning to her surprise at the Hertz leasing counter that the vehicle doesn't come with a driver.
Yet despite their wealth and privilege, the Siegels are sympathetic figures. The strain of trying to hold his empire together becomes apparent on David Siegel's face as his interviews with Greenfield progress. Jackie Siegel visits an old friend in danger of losing her own modest house to foreclosure and sends her $5,000 to help fend off the bankers.
"It's got a human element that I think is unexpected for the viewers going in. I think they thought it was going to be a look at the rich or this kind of reality-show craziness about the building of the biggest house in America, and it starts that way and takes you in, and then takes you on this other path that's really about looking at the American dream _ both its virtues and its flaws, and how we all got caught up in that," Greenfield said.
"I remember David said to me in one of the interviews _ I keep thinking about this, and maybe I should have put it in the movie _ he said, `Money doesn't make you happy. You just can be miserable in a better part of town.'"