Westgate founder livid about Sundance doc
August 14, 2012
David Siegel rues the day he allowed documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and her crew into his home.
Siegel, the founder and head of Westgate Resorts, says the film "The Queen of Versailles," which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened nationwide in July, paints a false picture of his family and implies that his business is failing.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, he told The Park Record last week. The Westgate Resort Park City at the base of Canyons and his 26 other timeshare resorts across the country are flourishing. But he fears the distorted image portrayed in the film has discouraged potential timeshare sales.
Siegel claims the filmmaker "tricked" his family into allowing access into their personal lives on the pretense of making a documentary about their efforts to build the largest house in America. Instead, he says, she made an unflattering satire about their flamboyant lifestyle and their financial troubles.
When Greenfield first began filming David, his wife Jacqueline and their eight children in 2009, they were building a 90,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Fla., dubbed "Versailles" after the famous French castle and Jacqueline, an actress, was excited about being in the spotlight.
In the midst of the project, however, the recession forced the Siegels to mothball the project and Greenfield began to focus instead on the calamitous effects of the economic crisis on the family and the business.
That’s where David Siegel and Lauren Greenfield parted ways.
Siegel filed a lawsuit against Greenfield and the Sundance Institute in December when the film was selected for the film festival and promotional materials depicted it as "a rags to riches to rags story." The complaint has since been amended, dropping Sundance, but continues to pursue damages against Greenfield’s company and the film’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures.
The lawsuit mentions Westgate’s Park City property claiming the film’s depiction of the Siegels’ business ventures caused the company to be "shunned by customers and the business community, specifically in the Park City area."
Greenfield, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, says the lawsuit is "completely meritless, is an attack on free speech, and is driven by business interests." In an email this week she added that she is saddened by David Siegel’s allegations and that she worked closely with the family and Westgate with their complete cooperation.
Jacqueline Siegel, however, is unfazed by her husband’s concerns and admits that she enjoyed the whole experience. She refers to Greenfield as "a great artist" and in an interview in Park City last week said she would even consider making a sequel.
"The Queen of Versailles" won critical praise at Sundance and is now playing in theaters across the country including Salt Lake City. Greenfield said she and Jackie have seen the film together several times, but David remains deeply concerned about how the film will affect his company, Westgate Resorts.
DAVID SIEGEL SAYS FILM IS NOT A DOCUMENTARY, IT’S A REALITY SHOW
David Siegel visits his Westgate property at the base of Canyons resort in Park City at least four times a year, once a season. He has fond memories of the resort’s opening day during Utah’s Olympic Winter Games, saying his first guests were 50 Secret Service agents who were in town to provide security for the local venues.
Since then, Siegel, along with his wife Jackie and their eight children, have returned many times. But, even though the resort is located just steps away from the Canyons’ gondola, he admits he rarely skis. Instead, Siegel likes to hang out in the sales pit, helping his staff close deals on timeshare vacations.
The founder of Westgate Resorts and among the first to embrace the novel real estate concept 32 years ago, Siegel is still bullish on the timeshare industry which he says has endured every crisis imaginable and bounced right back.
"I’ve been through oil embargoes, 9/11, Gulf Wars, 21-percent interest rates, the savings-and-loan debacle, the RTC days, recessions — and we still grew every year," he said during a visit to Park City last week.
But the one challenge he did not anticipate came in the form of a documentary filmmaker and photographer named Lauren Greenfield.
"I can’t stand her," he said with a growl.
In 2008, with their permission, Greenfield began filming documentary about the Siegels efforts to build a 90,000-square-foot mansion near Orlando, Fla., reputed to be the largest house in America. At the time, Siegel was also building an ambitious timeshare project in Las Vegas.
However, over the course of the next three years, while Greenfield was making frequent trips to document the progress on both projects, the economy crashed, construction on the home came to an abrupt halt and the company had to relinquish the Las Vegas property. Greenfield captured it all in vivid detail and, instead of a story about a family living the high life in an ornate palace, the film turned into an allegory about the rise and fall of America’s economy from the perspective of one very rich and quirky family.
In December of 2011, Greenfield’s finished documentary, "The Queen of Versailles," was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival and was touted as a "rags to riches to rags story." It was highlighted as one of the opening-night premieres and ultimately earned Greenfield an award as best director.
Siegel was not amused.
"It was not a documentary. There was not one minute of truth in it. It was a reality show. It was staged, it was scripted, things were taken out of context, and it left the impression to the public that the company was going out of business."
Specifically, Siegel objects to scenes that he says were contrived to make the couple seem absurdly out of touch with reality. He claims the family did not make regular trips to McDonalds in a limousine, that Jackie did not wear fur coats while boating, that the housekeeper did not sleep in the children’s playhouse, and that they were encouraged to sit in a throne-like chair for interviews by the filmmaker to fit in with her own agenda.
"The movie was directed at the 99 percenters that hate the one percenters and it showed us as this wealthy out-of-reality couple," David said.
In truth, he says, the guilded chair was picked up at an auction and was only used during Christmas, the limousine was owned by a friend who needed the business, the extravagant trips to Walmart were to purchase toys for charity, and the fur coat was a just prop to make the film more fun.
In fact, Jackie readily admits to "playing to the camera."
"I am an actress and I do things to play to the camera, just to make it more interesting, I mean, who wants to sit there and watch someone just changing channels on a TV," she asks.
As to David’s claim that the film is not true, Jackie demurs.
"Well there was some truth to it I mean, I am a part of it. Every day I would try to think of things to do. But I do that anyway. I have fun all the time. I love life."
Jackie maintains a friendship with Greenfield despite the lawsuit. "We spent a lot of years together." She said she considers Greenfield "a great artist and a great photographer" who "got lucky" when the storyline took its unexpected twist due to the downturn in the economy. "She’ll probably get an Oscar," she laughs.
After filming "thousands of hours," Jackie said she had no idea what to expect the night the film opened at Sundance.
Greenfield was nervous too – about the public’s response and Jackie’s. In fact, Greenfield shielded Jackie during the post-screening Q&A, explaining it was her first time seeing the film and she wanted to give Jackie time to absorb it.
Greenfield needn’t have worried. Jackie, wearing a characteristically flashy fur coat and leopard-print dress, loved the attention.
"For me going through a red carpet, it was probably, besides marrying my husband and then giving birth to my children, one of the most memorable experiences I have had in my life. I wish I could have hung out later and gone to all of the events, but I left right after the screening. I would have liked to have heard the reaction from the people … I would have liked to have answered questions from people.
David did not attend, but he said all of the feedback he heard was negative.
"It impacted the business the week that it was showing here. Our sales dropped that week. Of course, everybody that saw the movie left the theater thinking that the company is going under, so they’re not going to come over here (to Westgate) and buy a timeshare from a company that looks like its not going to be in business next week," he said.
Jackie says her only regret is that the movie hurt their business.
But, Siegel emphasizes, the business has recovered and the current lawsuit is more about the principle than the money.
"We did downsize, but we also got lean and mean and we stayed very profitable. We purposely downsized so we could do what everyone in the country should do – live within our means without having to borrow. We kind of changed our business model because we don’t want to be beholden to banks anymore," he explained.
Last week Siegel said he gave his entire staff at Westgate Park City – from the housekeepers to the managers – five-percent raises. And he added that plans are in the works to add a new restaurant and bar to the premises.
Things are looking up at Versailles too, he said. According to Jackie and David, they have renewed their construction permits for Versailles, which is on the market for $100 million (finished) or $75 million (as is). The Realtor’s description of the property which is located on Lake Butler near Orlando, Fla. Includes 13 bedrooms, 11 kitchens and a 20-car garage.
"We have four or five companies that are bidding on installing the marble, the balustrades and columns on the outside of the house, and I would say in the next couple of weeks everything will be going full speed ahead again. We anticipate moving into the house in about three years," said David.
Ironically, the long-term effects of the film might not be so bad for the couple who say they are being courted by several nationally televised reality shows.
According to David, "We are getting all kinds of offers from all kinds of people to do reality shows on TV and we are looking at a few that will fit in with our image and will tell the truth about us, not some fictitious scripted thing."
SUNDANCE FILMMAKER ARGUES FILM IS FAIR AND TRUE
Lauren Greenfield, director of the Sundance documentary "Queen of Versailles," is adamant that her film accurately portrays David and Jacqueline Siegel and their business as they coped with the financial challenges afflicting the entire nation during the time she was making the film.
This week, Greenfield responded via email to The Park Record’s questions about the Siegels’ allegations that the film is defamatory and damaged their business.
David and Jackie are split on their feelings about you. David claims to have been betrayed, but Jackie still likes you. I asked each, if they could go back in time, would they do it all again (allow you into their home). David said NO! Jackie said yes. What about you?
I would not do anything differently in the making of the film. I stand behind the film, which was made with honesty, integrity, and compassion. I remain grateful for their giving me the privilege of telling their story. They are both extraordinary in the way they welcomed me into their home when they felt on top of the world, but kept their doors equally open when their fortunes changed and they struggled. I documented both their achievements and their challenges in a way that brought out their humanity. One of the qualities that make them so compelling as characters is the way their virtues and their flaws compel us to see our own. This story is about them, but it is also about our culture, and the collective mistakes we made that led to the crisis.
Jackie says she "played to the camera to make it more interesting and David says scenes like taking a limousine to pick up food at McDonalds were "staged" to dramatize your storyline. How do you respond?
There are no staged scenes in the film. My documentary practice consists of cinema verite (observational cinema) combined with interviews. I filmed 200 hours of footage from April 2009-November 2011 with full cooperation from David and Jackie Siegel and their family, Richard Siegel and Westgate. Neither Jackie nor I ever suggested she take a limo to McDonalds for the filming. Stopping at McDonalds was an unplanned event on a day we happened to be filming.
David says Westgate’s business is stronger than ever and that they have renewed their building permits for Versailles. Have you made any changes to the film since it was screened at Sundance that suggest their business is recovering?
The film is exactly the same as the one screened at Sundance for which all the final cards were fact checked by David Siegel’s attorney. I chose not to add a new update for three reasons:
Jackie obviously loves to be on camera and seems to be naive about how she is perceived. Did you have any qualms about using some of the scenes that portray her as somewhat ditzy?
I don’t have qualms about any scenes in the film. I think Jackie’s humanity, generosity, and intelligence come through, as well as her foibles, oversights, and self-admitted living in a fantasy world of her making. Many viewers have told me that the surprise of the film for them is that at the beginning, they do not expect to like Jackie and by the end, they find her sympathetic and relatable.
I have now watched the film with Jackie several times. She enjoys the audience response and is always laughing in the same places as they are. The film was made with compassion, humor and respect and Jackie understands that.
The film raises important questions about documentary filmmaking ethics: in particular, the complicated relationships between filmmakers and their subjects and how a documentary is edited. What are your observations about those issues in light of this film and the lawsuit?
I take my role as a filmmaker and a journalist very seriously and have been making in-depth and award-winning documentary films and photographs about American life for the last 20 years. I work in a cinema verite process and filmed 200 hours with the Siegels over a nearly three-year period with deep, embedded access and the full cooperation of the subjects. My work has always been distinguished by its intimate access, sociological perspective, and empathy. I believe it is the close relationship I had with the family, and the lengthy time spent in the field, that gave me an informed understanding of the events and the characters and allowed me to tell a compassionate, honest and important story about a family and our times.
Neither the film or the filmmaking is controversial, defamatory, or unethical in any way. There is a legal claim as well as a PR campaign by an unhappy subject with specific business interests who wanted a different ending to the film. As you know in journalism, subjects are not always happy with the stories about them and this is par for the course in independent documentary work. I am pleased that Jackie likes the film, but to satisfy David in the finished film would have meant compromising my ethics as a filmmaker and journalist.
What I have learned from this experience is the very real threat to free speech that abuse of the legal system can create. David Siegel and Westgate signed agreements to be in the film which they are violating with a meritless lawsuit designed to harass and intimidate a filmmaker.
The ethical issue at hand is not journalistic ethics, but to what extent we allow business interests to threaten free speech, as we have seen in other lawsuits filed by corporations against filmmakers (i.e. Chevron versus Berlinger, Dole versus Frederik Gertten).