Films by this Filmmaker in the Tri-College Library Collection

Thin (Dir: Lauren Greenfield, 2006)

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Running Time: 102 min

Thin (2006), directed by Lauren Greenfield and released by HBO, follows four women through treatment for disordered eating at the Renfrew Center in Florida, and serves as both an exploration of the struggles these women face in this institution as they try to live their lives and improve their health, as well as a presentation, if not a dramatic exposé, of the politics and running of the treatment center itself. The film follows three women in their twenties and thirties—Shelly, Polly, Alisa—and a girl named Brittany, who has been admitted to Renfrew at just fifteen years old, as they meet with therapists, deal with nurses and staff, and interact with one another and the rest of the patients.

The film crew of Thin is fairly passive in their filming and telling of these women’s stories, forgoing traditional interviews in favor of a cinema verité style that allows the viewer to judge the situations on screen for themselves. Renfrew is presented as a seemingly-endless set of rules that, for Polly and Shelly, are begging to be broken. Thin mainly follows the arc of these two women’s stories, as Shelly deals with her body image and the effect her sickness and her mercurial attitude has on her family, while Polly carves out a niche for herself, both in our eyes and in those of the Renfrew staff, as a sort of troublemaker and leader. She smokes cigarettes where she’s not supposed to; on one of her days off she goes to a tattoo parlor and gets inked; however, Polly is eventually kicked out of Renfrew because Shelly admits that Polly gave her mood stabilizers. While Alisa’s story of being a single mother struggling with an eating disorder and Brittany’s youth and fragile composure also make for compelling side stories, Polly is clearly the “Randall McMurphy” sort of character that the audience finds—and is meant to find—alternately dangerous, charming, and frustrating; indeed, the New York Times wrote in its review of Thin:

““Thin” could have been “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for women, a rousing parable about the extinction of individual souls by American institutions. But the HBO production, which appears tonight, is a documentary by a compassionate and detached photographer, and not a novel by an inflamed polemicist, and thus its point of view is more passive-aggressive than Ken Kesey’s. That’s O.K. The upthrown hands of the filmmaker, Lauren Greenfield, come through anyway: clearly the treatment for anorexia, even at the Renfrew Center in Florida, one of the plushest eating-disorders clinics in the country, is exasperating. Infuriating, even.”

The film closes after Polly’s and Brittany’s forced exits from Renfrew (the latter having to leave due to her insurance running out, a theme that could be the subject of an entire new documentary), and the filmmakers inform us, in text displayed under photographs of the four protagonist, about their lives post-Renfrew: Brittany relapses and moves back in with her mother, Alisa attempts suicide and returns to Renfrew, Polly goes back to school, still struggling with her weight, and Shelly undergoes electric shock treatment for depression after losing an unhealthy amount of weight. However, visiting the Wikipedia page for Thin reveals a far more grim reality post-2006: that while Shelly, Alisa, and Brittany (after struggling with drugs) managed to get some help after the events of the film, Polly ended up possibly committing suicide in 2008; knowing that she dies after the events of the film, where, despite her recalcitrance and rebellious nature, she is infantilized, condescended to, and thrown out of Renfrew, makes the implications of her death that much sadder. Had she been allowed another chance to stay at Renfrew, she might still be alive today.

What I found interesting while watching the film is that no attention is paid to aspects of aspects of society, especially in the United States, that could very well have played a part in these women and girl developing such severe eating disorders. The focus of the film is very much about the process of the treatment of these sicknesses rather than an exploration of the imagery and visual cues that, especially for a girl as young as Brittany, could have caused these four protagonists to develop unhealthy body images. Additionally, the film is rather narrow in its demographic scope as it focuses on four white women rather than including a more diverse set of protagonists. I would also have been interested to see a reference to a male protagonist, since most of the dialogue around eating disorders follows the stories of women and girls.

Thin aims to demonstrate the experience of being at Renfrew as lived by these three women and one young girl. The juxtapositions of patient experiences and Renfrew staff responses, created just by what Greenfield chooses to cut or leave in, casts Renfrew and its processes in a negative light. Rather than having the patients’ best interests at heart, Thin seems to show, Renfrew’s nurses and staff engage in often cruel gossip about the patients, make jokes about losing and gaining weight while in private, and engage in tone/language policing as a means of exerting power.

Ultimately, Thin is a saddening, sobering depiction of trying to heal in an institution that, on paper, might seem to be a safe, positive place for treatment, but in reality is just as flawed and bureaucratic as any other institution. There are undercurrents of issues that the film easily could have followed, had it decided to go that direction, and thus made a more political statement, but instead Thin presents the evidence, both inside and outside Renfrew, and leaves it up for the viewer to decide who is right and who is wrong—or rather, if there are even any true villains in this piece.

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Queen of Versailles, The (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)

Country of Origin:
Format: ,
Running Time: 100 min
David Siegel and Jaqueline SiegelPhoto by Lauren Greenfield – © 2012 - Magnolia Pictures

David Siegel and Jaqueline Siegel
Photo by Lauren Greenfield – © 2012 – Magnolia Pictures

Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles challenges viewers to contemplate the emptiness and excess created by consumerism. Through following one ultra-wealthy family’s accumulation and subsequent loss of material wealth, Greenfield explores America’s pre-Recession moral decay and its consequent (and painful) hangover.  Part cinema verite, part candid interview, she investigates the ugly byproduct of America’s free market ideology – unashamed greed – and how we are all suspect to its charm.

“Everyone wants to be rich,” says David Seigel, one of the subject of Greenfield’s film, as he expounds on his business philosophy, “if they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich. And if they don’t want to feel rich, they’re probably dead.” Seigel, the owner and founder of the largest privately-owned timeshare company, uses this theory to amass his empire. While he profits from alluring working-class Americans to indulge their appetite for luxury, he seeks his own aspirations of building the largest house in America, modeled after the Versailles Palace.  In essence, Seigel’s business successes and personal aspirations epitomize America’s pre-Recession greed-driven culture.

But when the housing market crashes, his billions disappear. While Greenfield could have focused on David for her film, as his meteoric rise and fall have Shakespearean proportions, she instead makes Jackie, his wife, the primary subject of the film. Greenfield follows the tall, blonde fortyish shopaholic as she attempts to maintain cohesion within her family of eight children even as they become bankrupt. As the family falls deeper into economic trouble, we see Jackie becoming more responsible. Although she remains quixotically optimistic that their wealth will return and that they will complete their Versailles home, she forces herself to live a more constrained lifestyle.

The Queen of Versailles received high critical praise, including the US directing award at the 2012 Sundance. The film received further attention when David Seigel sued Greenfield for not obtaining proper release. The US District Court Judge Anne Conway sided with the filmmaker, writing “it rips the fibers of the imagination to stretch it so far as to believe that a sophisticated business executive within the tightly run organization of a self-proclaimed dictator would sign an agreement without reading it and without ever discussing it with his iron-fisted boss and father until after litigation commenced.”[i]

But as much as this film is a moral indictment against American consumerism, it is also a celebration of ambition, strength, charity, and redemption. No doubt Greenfield remains sympathetic to her subjects, particularly Jackie, whose unpretentiousness and undying optimism makes for a compelling watch. While the film indulges the audience’s sense of schadenfraude, it also forces the audience to cringe when we see their comeuppance.  But the film hits its audience the hardest when it reveals the emptiness in our material lives. This becomes most apparent when the Seigel family opens up their hundreds of Christmas presents. After the brief and fleeting moment of excitement of opening the presents, the family sits with empty expressions on their faces, surrounded by a sea of cheap plastic toys and glittering wrapping paper.  As A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes, “if this film is a portrait, it is also a mirror.”[ii]

[i] United States District Court Middle District of Florida Orlando Division. Westgate Resorts, Ltd. v. Lauren Greenfield, Frank Evers and Greenfield/Evers LLC. 2013-01-24. Retrieved 2013-04-09.

[ii] Scott, A. O. “Let Them Eat Crow.” New York Times 20 July 2012. Web. 10 April 2013.