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Behind the camera of Bert Stern lies a heated family feud.
The photographer died in 2013 at the age of 83 and left behind some iconic images of Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, and some of the most famous ones of Marilyn Monroe. His work has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art, and as a contemporary of such masters as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Stern’s life and work were profiled in the documentary, Bert Stern: Original Madman, which is now at the center of a great legal controversy.
The filmmaker behind that film is Shannah Laumeister, who was secretly married to Stern in his last few years. She decided to turn the camera around on Stern, and in a documentary produced by Magic Films Productions, Laumeister showed her husband’s early career working in the mailroom at a magazine and his friendship with Stanley Kubrick as well as Stern’s later years, where he controversially recreated his Marilyn Monroe photo shoot with Lindsay Lohan.
A lawsuit filed by Bret Stern, Bert’s son from a prior marriage, and Trista Wright, Bert’s daughter from a prior marriage, as well as two grandchildren, Miranda Wright and Georgia Wright, frames Laumeister’s film as “subterfuge and guise to gain intimate knowledge about his father’s life, mental state, weakening mental capacity and thought processes, in order to manipulate [Bert Stern] and gain control over his estate. In June 2013, after his father passed away, [Bret] Stern learned that Laumeister had induced Bert Stern into making a new will that left everything to her except a few small cash gifts to his children and a few other people.”
The issue of inheritance is a separate controversy, though. (Bert Stern’s Monroe photos sold at an auction at Christie’s for $120,000.) This story deals with footage of the family in Bert Stern: Original Madman, which the children contend violates their rights to image and likeness. Additionally, the children weren’t pleased to see themselves in a documentary that also featured “lurid details” about the photographer’s drug use and lewd behavior, not to mention “gratuitous naked photos of Laumeister.” The film allegedly violated their privacy rights and led to “humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety, mental anguish, worry and other emotional and physical distress.”
On Thursday, Laumeister filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the lawsuit as an impingement of First Amendment rights, and from the looks of these court papers, the family feud is on the path towards exploring how to address the usage of family home video. These days, parents make photographs and videos of their young children and put that stuff up on Facebook, but in pre-social media times, images taken were rarely expected to ever be part of widely distributed documentaries.
The lawsuit, states the motion, “is an effort by two of Bert Stern’s children to punish Laumeister for marrying their father,” and must be stopped for “going after her protected speech.”
According to the filmmaker, Trista Wright gave an interview for the documentary and during the session, she was joined by her children without any objection. On the day of the filming, adds the defendant, Wright signed a release both for herself and her children (Bert’s grandchildren appear in the film for 30 seconds). Thus, the Wright claims are barred, argues Laumeister attorney Lincoln Bandlow at Lathrop & Gage. The original lawsuit says that Wright didn’t consent to having her children in the film and alleges misrepresentation on the filmmaker’s part.
Bret Stern’s claims pose a different dilemma because he declined an invitation to participate in the film and never signed a release. The son wasn’t included in early cuts of the documentary, but after screenings, Laumeister was told by the film’s distribution agent that it was protocol to have at least some mention of all of the children of the subject of the documentary. So the filmmaker got some baby and toddler images of the son, which according to the filmmaker were provided by Bert Stern. The footage is said to constitute just 15 seconds of the film.
Laumeister doesn’t have quite the poison arrow of a release form to shoot down Bret’s claims, but she is pointing to more general First Amendment protections, namely that her use of the son relates to a “matter of public interest” and is “transformative.”
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