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A Wealth of Material

Just in time for a political debate on wealth, taxes and living within our means, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary film “The Queen of Versailles” opens in Washington on Friday.

The film tells the story of the construction of the largest house in the United States, the 90,000-square-foot Versailles of the title, in Orlando, Fla. Timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife, Jackie, run into problems when, during the economic collapse of 2008, they fall behind on their mortgage and experience all-too-familiar difficulties: being underwater, trying to keep a business afloat, downsizing.

For Greenfield, a photographer and filmmaker, her new film fits into a 20-year project she’s been working on to document wealth in both mediums. She hopes to wrap up the project next year.

“The documentation of the rich is very important, and it’s underrepresented,” she tells Roll Call. “Portraits or society pictures are commonplace, but not reportage or verite.”

It’s the reporting that provides the film with its hook. After all, what is more universal than people, regardless of their station in life, struggling to pay the bills?

Even though the Siegels represented the very top of the 1 percent, their story is one that Greenfield, as well as many viewers and critics, see as a morality tale.

“Their characters break the stereotype. … David had risked everything on this one building,” she said, referring to a tower he helped financed in Las Vegas using his mortgage on Versailles. “At that point, I realized their story was symbolic, an allegory for what we had all done during and leading up to the financial crisis. … We see our virtues and our flaws in them.”

At a screening last month in Washington, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were in attendance. Afterward, LaHood told Roll Call that the movie was “great” but that he thought people in his hometown of Peoria, Ill., would likely have a tough time relating to the Siegels, even if their problems, in context, were similar. “Those people were, like, from another planet,” he said.

Greenfield said that’s a fairly common reaction but that people come around, and she includes herself in that category.

“They start out in that place, that they might never relate … and then this transformation happens, as their financial situation changes. They feel sympathetic at the end and never expected to.”

The film opens Friday at the E Street Cinemas at 555 11th St. NW.

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