Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, a Magnolia Pictures release. Image © Lauren Greenfield / Institute.
Five years ago, Lauren Greenfield was commissioned by Elle magazine to photograph Donatella Versace. The documentary photographer had long been fascinated by America's obsession with wealth, glamour and consumerism, so she jumped at the chance to get access to one of the most exclusive fashion circles in the world.
Greenfield duly captured the Italian designer getting made up in her hotel room, posing for press shots with supermodels and gossiping with a coterie of stars. However, perhaps the most important picture of the set was taken during a private event at the Versace store in Beverly Hills, after the designer had made a guest appearance and left. Rather than chasing after her subject, the photographer stayed on to mingle with the loyal patrons of the store, and in doing so captured a seemingly innocuous shot of three women, anonymously cropped from the neck down, with the latest Versace handbags hooked over their forearms.
Greenfield later bumped into her old assistant who was incredulous that she had let her assignment subject go, yet similarly impressed with the picture. "He said something along the lines of, ‘That's probably going to be the award-winning photo,'" she recalls. "And he was right." A riot of gold and glitz, the photo was included among the magazine's photos of the year as a representation of a "new gilded age" of super-rich households worth $10m-plus.
However, more importantly for Greenfield, it introduced her to the central figure in the picture - Jackie Siegel, the 43-year-old former Mrs Florida 1993 and third wife of 74-year-old billionaire David Siegel, founder, president and CEO of the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world, Westgate Resorts.
"Jackie told me about their plans to build the biggest house in America, and that hooked me," says Greenfield. "I really liked her and I was also drawn to her openness. She didn't have a personality that was typical of a rich person or a billionaire - she didn't have a protective veil and was very friendly, very down to earth. I think because of her humble origins she had an accessibility that I thought would be a window into wealth."
Keen to explore the subject more, Greenfield arranged a shoot with the Siegels at their existing home, a 26,000sq ft mansion in Florida. "I realised right away that it was a film," she recalls. "I mean, I liked the pictures - I still like the pictures - but there was a story there and characters I just had to film." Indeed, she began filming them on her Canon 5D Mk II during that first trip, with the help of an assistant, and over the next three years she would return at regular intervals with a full crew to film and photograph the Siegel family.
Of course, the implication is that you can't tell a story with stills, but Greenfield insists it is simply the case that film allows her to cover the action more comprehensively from multiple angles: "I work in film really differently to how I work in photography in that I don't do it myself, I really step back and direct.
"I really love directing - I feel like it uses parts of me that I haven't had a chance to explore," she adds, citing her opportunity to work with composers and directors of photography to expand her range. "It's a collaboration that really elevates me as an artist and allows me to learn and do new things, so I find that incredibly stimulating."
When shooting on location, Greenfield left a large portion of the camera work to her director of photography, Tom Burwitz. "Being a photographer makes me have really high standards. I don't have that experience as a DP [director of photography] and I know I'm not as good as the people I want to hire." Instead, she shot with a second camera, "in case something happens", using either the 5D or, more often, a large professional HD camera. And that persistence to cover all aspects of her subject is key. "For me, time in the field is important, and letting moments unfold in front of the camera is the magic. It's the same in a photograph - it's that decisive moment that you just never expected, but you know when you see it - that tells the story. I think that's what we live for."
Story with a twist
The first half-hour of the resulting film, The Queen of Versailles, is hilarious, as Greenfield zooms in on the absurdity of the Siegels' ambitions. Plans for the new 90,000sq ft house were inspired by Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles and took in a full-size baseball field and "maybe" 10 kitchens. Alongside this, her husband's company is seen selling space at PH Towers Westgate - at 52 storeys and $600m, the tallest and most expensive timeshare property in the world.
"At the beginning, one of the things I was interested in was the way their house was a microcosm of America," reveals Greenfield. "It had that Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey quality, with domestic help from all these different countries and backgrounds. There was a closeness in a non-hierarchical way - Jackie is the boss, but she treated the nannies almost like an extended family."
Ironically, while filming in the lap of luxury, the photographer was struggling to support the shoots financially, before the BBC's Storyville strand became the first of several European backers. "It took me a long time to convince anybody else to get on board," she admits.
Greenfield has become accustomed to working without backing on her self-assigned photography projects. At the time of our interview, she was about to leave on an unspecified four-week trip to six countries without any outside financing, and she credits her husband, Frank Evers - CEO of her agency, Institute, and co-producer of The Queen of Versailles - with giving her the confidence to continue working in this manner. "The Queen of Versailles was a labour of love, and we were always raising money after we had spent it," she says. "I mean, there were times when our kids thought we would lose our house."
David and Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles. Image © Lauren Greenfield / Institute.
As it turned out, it wasn't the photographer's house that would be in jeopardy. The Siegels fell foul of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the company that built PH Towers sued Westgate for unpaid bills. A year into filming, Siegel was forced to lay off thousands of employees and attempted to sell $350m of assets, as the timeshare tower and unfinished palace were threatened with foreclosure. "At that point, I was really holding on to a rollercoaster and felt something historic unfolding - and nothing was going to stop me from capturing it," says Greenfield.
The level of access the Siegels granted the photographer, particularly as their fortunes nose-dived, is astounding. She admits she was keen for the film to show the couple's change from the posturing of their first photo shoot to the open and raw interviews later on. "It turned out to be this incredible symbol for the housing crisis, and David was in the unusual position of being both lender and borrower. He was selling the dream of luxury, the aspiration of owning a second home [in a country you can't afford] and so you own it one week a year. But he was going for that same aspirational luxury himself."
Wealth and body culture
Greenfield's interest in the rich and famous began while majoring in Visual Environmental Studies at Harvard. One of her tutors, the sociologist and photographer Barbara Norfleet, had set up the university's photographic archive and made a surprising discovery. "She found that there were very few documentary photographs of wealthy people," explains Greenfield. "Most of what represented wealthy people in the archives were either commissioned portraits or society pictures, which had no context and were posed."
Norfleet set about righting the imbalance with her 1986 book, All The Right People. Like a polar opposite to the Farm Security Administration's Depression-era photographs, the collection featured informal monochrome pictures of America's upper classes during the boom years of the Reagan era. The series had a profound influence on Greenfield. She began her own photographic career as an intern at National Geographic, but rather than searching for otherness in some far-flung continent, she set her sights closer to home.
The lives of others
Born in Boston in 1966, Greenfield was raised in a strict Jewish community in Venice Beach, California. Her first major personal project, Fast Forward, was four years in the making, documenting the lives of media-saturated kids growing up too quickly under the influence of Hollywood values. The series included images of an 18-year-old undergoing plastic surgery, and two pre-teens playing blackjack at a benefits fundraiser.
With an ICP Infinity Award and National Geographic grant under her belt, Greenfield followed this up with 2002's Girl Culture, which took an unflinching look at female self-esteem and drew on her own personal experiences as a teenager "in the pre-Britney Spears world". Shooting with a handheld flash to create up-close, high-saturation colour prints like Hollywood's answer to Martin Parr, demand soon grew for her talents.
American Photo placed her joint-third in a 2005 list of the "100 Most Important People in Photography", and magazines as diverse as Newsweek, Elle and GQ began seeking her out. "I really appreciate the partnership with magazines because they have ideas that I would never have, and they put me in situations I would never be in," she says. "It really just gets me out in the world and introduces me to things that inevitably lead to really important personal projects."
While commissions often uncover fresh subject matter, Greenfield believes the themes in her work have largely remained the same - wealth, consumerism, body image - and her new projects have evolved organically, often with overlaps between each series. One such occasion was a 1997 assignment for Time to document the treatment of eating disorders at Florida's Renfrew Center. Time didn't even run the story - "What's important to the magazines is not necessarily what's important to me," she notes. But the experience led to Thin, a full monograph and an HBO-commissioned feature-length documentary of the same name, which was later nominated for an Emmy and collected the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the London Film Festival.
Thin was Greenfield's first film as a director, although her interest in first-person interviews stems back to her time at Harvard, when she would interview her photographic subjects. "Photographers are storytellers and [film] is a natural medium for them," she says, pointing to the recent successes of US photographer Louie Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for dolphin-hunting exposé The Cove in 2009, and Tim Hetherington, who co-directed 2010's Restrepo, winner of the Grand Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, two years before Greenfield herself received the Directing Award for Best US Documentary, collecting her prize in January of this year. Then in April she was in London for the first UK screening of The Queen of Versailles at Sundance's first London festival, and the film went on general release in the autumn.
Despite investing considerable time and funds in the film, Greenfield hasn't turned her back on stills photography, as she is currently working towards a 25-year retrospective with the help of freelance curator Trudy Wilner Stack. For now, though, she is enjoying her success as a filmmaker.
The Siegels had mixed feelings over the finished film: David attempted to sue both Greenfield and Sundance prior to the premiere, as he felt it ended on a sour note (he hadn't seen the final cut yet, but had taken umbrage at the phrase "a riches-to-rags story" in the press release, blissfully unaware that it was quoting him from the film), but Jackie has since helped the director promote the film on the US chatshow circuit, and the couple even bought two screens of a cinema in Orlando to show the film to their family and friends.
However, not everyone has been won over. Despite largely positive reviews, some critics suggested that Jackie was giving a "performance" more in keeping with a reality TV show, but Greenfield is adamant that she avoided manipulating the action. "When you work in this way, over a long period of time," she says, "you don't need to make anything happen for the camera. It's only in the edit room, when we had about 200 hours of footage, that you start to put things together and make sense of it. There's nothing staged in the film - it is anathema to the way I work."
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