When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began filming the lives of billionaires Jackie and David Siegel, she focused on the way their story reflected different aspects of the American Dream. Mr. Siegel was a self-made man who had built the largest time-share company in the United States. Mrs. Siegel, former engineering student and fashion model, was his charming trophy wife who had her heart set on building and occupying the largest single-family home in America.
“In the beginning, it would be an inside look at wealth,” Ms. Greenfield said. But by the end of filming Queen of Versailles, a documentary being screened tonight at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, the thesis became more complicated. The “extraordinary became ordinary,” Ms. Greenfield said, when the family was forced to put their dream house up for sale.
“Their story was an allegory of the overreaching of America,” she continued. Their financial fall coincided with the fall of many other families in America whose homes were forced into foreclosure, and whose unpaid credit card payments forced them into debt.
“It’s a supersized version of what so many people in America had to go through.”
The film begins with a tour of the Versailles-style mansion being built in Orlando, Florida. Ms. Siegel boasts of 10 kitchens, an ice-skating/roller rink and Louis XIV furnishings. One room contains five million dollars worth of marble.
“I could care less about clothes or material things,” Mr. Siegel tells the camera. The audience will most likely disagree, but their opinions of the family may also change as they become vulnerable. Midway through the building of their mansion, Mr. Siegel’s company, Westgate Resorts, falls victim to the 2008 financial crisis.
“It became a great metaphor for the subprime housing crisis,” Ms. Greenfield said. “He was selling mortgages and was beholden to the bankers.” Westgate laid off thousands of employees, and the Siegel family had to let go of most of their help.
Ms. Greenfield’s film shows how the family is affected by the financial changes, a pattern reflected in families across America, she said.
“It’s incredible how similar it is to other families,” she said. “The surprise of the film for people is that [the] characters are remarkably sympathetic... and [their story is] really an allegory for what we all went through,” Ms. Greenfield said.
Ms. Greenfield, for one, can relate to the temptation of American consumer culture. In one scene, Ms. Siegel reveals her shopoholic side when she fills two Walmart shopping carts to the brim with presents for her children, despite trying to spend money conservatively.
“I have done that too, left Costco with stuff I never intended to buy,” Ms. Greenfield said.
The film took three years to produce and many days of filming 10 to 12 hours a day.
“I think the embedded access was part of why it ends up being a sympathetic story, even though they live lives that are unimaginable,” Ms. Greenfield said. “Their virtues and flaws somehow allow us to see our own.”
Richard Paradise, who is bringing the film and the director to the Island as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society screening, saw the film at the Boston Indpendent Film Festival and viewed firsthand how audience members changed their attitude as the movie progressed and actually showed empathy for the Siegel’s, he said.
“There will be oohs and aahs and cringing in the first part while she is showing off her 90-thousand square foot house,” he predicts. But they will invariably change their minds, he said.
Queen of Versailles screens at 8 p.m. at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, 55 Narragansett avenue. Director Lauren Greenfield will attend and host a question and answer session after the movie. The cost is $10 or $7 for film society members. Call 508-696-9369 or visit mvfilmsociety.com. Doors open at 7:15 p.m.