Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” documents three years in the lives of the super-rich David and Jackie Siegel — a self-made tycoon and a former model three decades his junior — whose plans to build the largest home in America are thwarted by the real estate crash and financial crisis. Greenfield is a Harvard grad whose photography and filming work has focused on everything from girls with eating disorders to the consumer culture of teens to the financial crash in Dubai.
Q: Much of your work has focused on the role of consumerism and money in American culture. How did you become so interested in this?
A: I went to a private school in Santa Monica [in Los Angeles County], and it was very Hollywood-influenced, with a lot of money, concern about image, a lot of access to special things and also this jaded quality and sense of growing up quickly. I wasn’t from that world: my parents are professors, they weren’t in the entertainment business, they were from the East Coast, so I had an outsider’s perspective but trying to assimilate. … One of the first projects I did was on the French aristocracy, how this elite class was able to maintain themselves in modern democratic France, even when they were no longer wealthy. In a weird way, “Queen of Versailles” is coming full circle, the opposite of that.
Can you tell me a little more about your upbringing?
I grew up in Venice, [Calif.], which is where I live now, but at the time [in the ‘70s and ‘80s] it was a much more unusual place to raise a family. My parents were divorced, but both lived in communal living situations on the same street. In that sense, we were unconventional — I went to an alternative school until 10th grade — but in another sense we were a typical middle-class Jewish family. … In a way, there was a lot of focus on family and on community and on making a difference. My parents were not very interested in me having the 10 pairs of designer jeans or getting me a car at age 16, which was what I wanted and what I saw my friends getting.
How are you raising your own children?
I’m raising my kids in the same environment: they go to the same school I went to. I feel like my kids live and swim in [consumer culture]. We have a lot of family discussions about that. My eldest son is 12, very interested in all the flashy things, and is about to have a bar mitzvah year. His is at the end of the year, so he says by the time it gets to his, everyone will have done everything already. It’s hard to avoid as a parent having your kids get caught up in it. We all live in material culture and get caught up in it to some extent. … I don’t live a life at all like Jackie and David’s, but I can relate to aspects of their life: I’m a workaholic like David, and I like to shop like Jackie.
You’re Jewish, and so is David Siegel, but, except for a blurry wedding photo in which men are wearing yarmulkes, there’s virtually no reference to anything Jewish in the film.
It didn’t come up, because I wasn’t focusing on it. They have an inclusive American religion, where they celebrate everything: they do both, Easter egg hunts and Passover. As far as I could tell they’re not religious, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking for them.
Were you concerned that focusing on his Jewish background might reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes?
I did not choose to focus on religion, because to me that’s not relevant to the story, and I didn’t want to make it about that. As Jewish filmmakers and image-makers, I think we can’t be afraid of stereotypes, and we also don’t want to reinforce them. You have to tell true stories about what’s going on and be faithful to the stories you see.
This is an edited transcript.