A rich fall in 'The Queen of Versailles'

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Movies,Joana Suleiman,Buzz

Lauren Greenfield was following Donatella Versace for a project about wealth and consumerism when she met Jackie Siegel -- the woman behind the "Queen of Versailles."

"I was at one of Donatella's parties when Jackie told me about building the biggest house in America. And that really hooked me because I was interested in the connection between the American dream and home ownership."

In the film, Greenfield follows timeshare king David Siegel, his wife Jackie and their kids for three years.

"When we started filming [in April 2009], even though it was after the market crash, these were people I thought would never be affected. These are billionaires who have layers and layers of insulation." That notion wasn't disabused until 2010 during her fourth trip to film the family.

Even though they had spent millions building their 90,000-square foot dream home, it suddenly had to be placed on the market before it was even finished.

"I was completely surprised. David said the banks forced them to do it. He also told me for the first time that he had put all their money into the business and signed personally for all their business loans. He'd never taken anything aside. He'd never put anything aside."

That's when Greenfield realized the similarities in what people all over the world were going through. She has photographed foreclosure cities in California and Nevada, and the market crash in Dubai.

"They were a supersized version of what so many people had gone through. Their story was kind of an allegory for the overreaching of America."

Greenfield interviews a limo driver named Cliff, who also cought the speculative bug and ended up buying 19 properties he then lost while filing for bankruptcy. "This echoed David's story about the addictive quality of consumerism."

She also speaks to David's adopted niece who lives with them. She came from nothing and thought with wealth like this, she'd be happy every day. But she tells Greenfield she wanted more and more.

There is one particular scene in which Greenfield follows Jackie to a shopping trip at Walmart that really highlights this point.

"I expected to film a modest Christmas shopping trip. This was in 2010 when things were really tough for the family. And she just seems to shop endlessly."

A few weeks ago, Greenfield had the opportunity to show the film to the Secretary of Housing from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. "The secretary told me that for him, the film really is about value. And about what is enough. What is too much? When are we satisfied?" That's the moral of the story, she says.

Greenfield hopes the film provokes a conversation about lessons we can learn from the crash. Like David told her during the film, "We have to get back to reality and live within our means."

"Queen of Versailles" opens in District-area theaters on Friday.

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Joana Suleiman

Production Editor
The Washington Examiner