Sometimes film-makers just get lucky. When Lauren Greenfield started filming David Siegel, a billionaire property tycoon, and his ditzy blonde wife Jackie, she had no idea that a year into filming the property market on which David’s timeshare business was dependent would collapse.
She had started filming the couple because they were building the largest private house in the United States, a “palace” in the style of the French Versailles, with ten bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, ten kitchens including a specialized sushi kitchen and a bowling alley.
It was a perfect subject for the Kardashian era, a couple whose obscene wealth the audience would not ultimately envy because they proved unequivocally that money couldn’t buy you taste. Or a genuine relationship. No doubt this film would have done pretty well at the box office too.
But what Greenfield has produced, only in part due to her own skill, is a timely study of a marriage and of the American Dream in reverse. When the unthinkable happens – the recession hits, the Siegels face forcelosure and they are forced to “cut back” (cue overloaded trolleys at Walmart instead of Macy’s) - it is not just their pockets that are poorer but their marriage too.
If at first we loathe Jackie, with her botoxed beauty and absurd implants, we gradually learn that she is savvier – and sweeter – than her appearance suggests. Thirty years David’s junior, she has married for money, yes, but does also seem to love her husband. She also holds an engineering degree but decided long ago that it wasn’t as lucrative as a wealthy man.
David meanwhile is increasingly disparaging about her, joking that he will one day “trade her in for a younger model” and likening her to another child rather than a partner. Mired in financial worry he ignores her and their children.
It is no accident that Greenfield has named the film after Jackie and not the couple. The camera is far kinder to her than it is to David, revealing the latter to be a manipulative grump who claims that he single-handedly ensured George W. Bush’s election by means that “may not necessarily have been legal." It’s no surprise that while Greenfield has remained close to Jackie since the film’s release, David is suing her and the other people behind the film for what he says is an unfair representation of his business’s fortunes.
It is not Greenfield’s skill that created such a timely tale, but it is her flair for interviews that encourage her subjects to tell us quite so much about them.
In the end, these are human beings, not emblems – and it is this that makes this documentary one of the most watchable, for rich and poor alike.