Lauren Greenfield says a funny thing happens when people watch her documentary, "The Queen of Versailles."
It happened when the movie about a superrich Florida family weathering the downturn in the U.S. economy debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and it's happened at other festivals and the recent premiere screening: First people start to laugh, then they start to empathize.
Audiences "have been surprised at how relatable they are, and how they didn't expect to feel empathy for them," Greenfield said in a recent phone interview. The movie returns to Utah today with a regular run at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.
The family consists of timeshare magnate David Siegel, his 30-years-younger wife, Jackie, their eight children, numerous dogs and other pets. The film starts by showing the Siegels' lavish lifestyle symbolized by a still-unfinished 90,000-square-foot mansion modeled after Versailles and their company, Westgate Resorts, whose success paid for the family's extravagance.
The film, Greenfield said, "started out as a look at wealth and the American dream in its most excessive manifestation."
On one hand, the director said, the Siegels are at the extreme, but "at the other end, they represent the Everyman in epic size."
Then the housing bubble burst, and the U.S. economy hit the skids. For Westgate, an empire built on customers who took out subprime loans to buy vacation timeshares, the collapse created a double bind: The banks demanded the company keep up payments on their properties, but the same banks were suddenly refusing to offer the loans that made those payments possible.
Unlike many of the superrich, Greenfield notes, David Siegel didn't inherit his money. He built Westgate from scratch and pumped his personal finances into the business to keep it afloat when the economy faltered. "They were at risk in a way that normal people are at risk," Greenfield said.
Greenfield's relationship with the Siegels is a case of polar opposites. Jackie attended the premiere screening at Sundance, the first time she saw the film, and has accompanied Greenfield to several festivals. David Siegel, on the other hand, filed a lawsuit against Greenfield and her producers before the movie played Sundance and the lawsuit is still active.
"It's an attack on free speech," Greenfield said of the lawsuit. She added that her lawyer, the famed First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus, believes the suit has little chance of success.
Jackie, though, is proud of the film. "She does like the attention and might enjoy the celebrity a little bit," Greenfield said. "She is moved by people acknowledging what they've gotten from her story."