During an International Honors nine month program, “Film Study and Anthropology”, Lauren Greenfield decided this was her calling. The program explored documentary filmmaking in France, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, India, Australia, and Japan.
“We watched many indigenous films and we met with amazing directors. It was on that trip that I realized my calling. I wasn’t sure if it would be sociology, film, photography, or anthropology, but looking at culture was my calling. When I got back to Harvard, I switched my major from Social Studies to Visual Studies. I soon realized that theory wasn’t my medium, and I moved toward filmmaking and photography,” Greenfield said in an interview.
During her remaining time at Harvard, she continued studying filmmaking under documentary filmmaker Robb Moss.
Her senior thesis photography project on the French Aristocracy, “Survivors of the French Revolution,” won her an internship with National Geographic. “It was an amazing experience where you get to know the photographers and go through film when it’s coming in from the field and have access to cameras and to the people there, who give you feedback on your work. It was really the first time that I wanted to try to be a photographer, because it was the first time that I saw the photographer as the storyteller, rather than just the illustrator of somebody else’s stories. And a lot of the people that I met were my mentors for 15 years. One of them is still my best friend and my go-to person on all my projects,” she said.
Her next project was taking a series of photos of high schoolers in Los Angeles in order to explore the way money and an unrelenting emphasis on image affected the lives of young Angelinos from all socioeconomic backgrounds. She workshopped the photos through the Eddie Adams workshop and an agent there gave her a small grant. “So I kept going. I’m like, 'If I get a $500 grant, then I can go out and spend $5,000, and just figure out a way to get the rest.' In a way, the grants have always been something that gives me confidence that I’m on the right track. But they are never enough money to actually do the thing,” Greenfield said.
Greenfield was also working on a series of photographs for National Geographic on a Mayan village. “They ended up killing the story and it was a devastating failure for me. I had spent like six months on it, but then I showed them the pictures and they wanted to support that work. They gave me the first National Geographic development grant.”
The series of pictures became Greenfield’s debut monograph, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. “I’ve never been interested in pretty pictures or pictures without contextual meaning about the way we live,” Greenfield explained. Her work focuses on our common cultural narrative, despite race and socioeconomic status.
This theme comes through in her documentary, Queen of Versailles, about Jackie and David Siegel. At first, the film doesn’t seem much different than an extreme version of the Real Housewives franchise. The Siegels are opulently, ridiculously, comically wealthy, thanks to David’s ownership of a Westgate Hotels, the largest time share hotel chain. Jackie has a degree in computer engineering and worked for IBM, but decided that modeling could make her more money. She now has 8 children (7 with David and 1 niece she has taken in from family.) They live in a 26,000 square foot home in Orlando, Florida and are in the process of building their dream home, accurately named Versailles after King Louis of France’s palace. Versailles is the largest home in America (yes, larger than the White House.)
“What drew me to this subject was that I got interested in the idea of a house as the ultimate expression of the American Dream,” Greenfield told The New York Times. She spent three years filming and had no idea that in the middle of her project, the financial bubble would burst, radically changing the Siegels’ storyline, along with many other Americans.
As David says in the film, he was “borrowing money to make money.” This dicey financial prospect was made to feel foolproof for most Americans for years, until the bubble burst. Suddenly people lost their jobs due to companies downsizing, people who were spending more than they were making were forced into foreclosure on their homes.
Even though the Siegels’ financial echelon was much, much higher than “average” Americans, in some ways, this means that they had further to fall. They are forced to sell their dream home, Versailles. In the film, Jackie visits one of the Westgate call centers which now stands empty, previously filled with a room full of chatter. The company who built the Vegas tower sues Westgate for unpaid bills. The financial troubles put a strain on David and Jackie’s marriage and their family, as he tries to figure out a way to save the business.
Greenfield said she showed the film to many people and no one wanted to help fund it. “Half the time we were self-funding it and always spending ahead of what we had. It took this kind of crazy trust and commitment to the story, which is totally irrational. But it’s been so gratifying to reach so many people with this film.”
Despite the access to the Siegels and the relationship she built with them over three years, when the movie premiered at Sundance–which Jackie attended–Greenfield got the news that David Siegel was suing her, claiming that the film was more fictional than real.
While promoting the film, Greenfield deferred to her lawyers if reporters had questions about the suit. Greenfield won the lawsuit in 2014. Now she just says, “I chose to end the film on an incredibly painful moment for David and he hates that part of it.” Siegel has said since the film, he’s gotten back on top.
Prior to Versailles, Greenfield also produced Girl Culture, a monograph examining the effects of body image and beauty standards on young women. In 2011, the Annenberg Space for Photography commissioned her to create a short film, Beauty CULTure, which examines beauty in popular culture, the narrow definition of beauty, and the influence of media messages on the female body.
In 2006, Greenfield directed THIN, a documentary which takes place at a residential facility for the treatment of women with eating disorders. Most recently, she directed the #likeagirl commercial for Always/Leo Burnett that went viral.
“For a while, I was kind of 'the gender photographer,' and I don’t feel like that now. In The Queen of Versailles, I was as interested in David’s story as I was Jackie’s. I think as a woman myself, it’s a little easier for me to connect and create intimacy with subjects who are women, because I know that language a little bit better. But I’m interested in boys and men too. I have two sons, and they are always asking me, “When are you gonna do Boy Culture?” What I see happening in boy culture is that instead of [body-image pressure] getting better for girls, it’s getting more challenging for boys, and I think that’s an important story, too.”
This post originally appeared on laurencbyrd.wordpress.com.
Top photo: Queen of Versailles
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Lauren C. Byrd is a freelance writer and blogger. After leaving Tennessee post-college, she has lived in Los Angeles, update New York, Queens, and Los Angeles again. She loves to talk about women in film, but also cares about good TV, documentaries, podcasts, true crime, journalism and social justice.