- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In the opening minutes of her new Netflix documentary, Britney vs Spears, filmmaker Erin Lee Carr reveals the initial intentions of the project. “Two years ago, I began making a movie about Britney Spears with Jenny Eliscu,” she states of her colleague, a journalist, radio host and onetime Rolling Stone contributing editor. “The movie was going to be about her artistry and her media portrayal, and can someone say wow to those dance moves? But the story was also about power and control, full of conspiracy and rumors. No one would talk. Until they did.”
At this stage in the swirl surrounding Britney’s life and conservatorship — a moment that has delivered a glut of projects from The New York Times Presents: Controlling Britney Spears on FX and Hulu to CNN’s Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom on the eve of a pivotal court hearing — finding out who is talking now and what new information they have to offer has become a spectator sport. When Netflix announced the doc last week, it promised “a thorough portrait of the pop star’s trajectory from girl next door to woman trapped by fame and family and her own legal status,” as well as the reveal of confidential documents, texts, a voicemail and new interviews with key players.
Now that Britney vs Spears has debuted on the streamer, it can be said that the 90-minute doc delivers on all of the above. Carr and Eliscu pore over petitions, letters and medical information, detail text messages allegedly sent by the singer, and interview the likes of onetime Britney confidants Sam Lutfi, Adnan Ghalib and Felicia Culotta. In addition, the film features writer Lorilee Craker, who teamed with Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, on her memoir Through the Storm; attorney Adam Streisand, whom Britney once tried to hire during her conservatorship; geriatric psychiatrist Dr. James Edward Spar, who may or may not have evaluated Britney; attorney Mark Vincent Kaplan, who represents Britney’s ex-husband Kevin Federline; former backup dancer Tania Baron; probate conservatorship attorney Tony Chicotel; Britney’s onetime business manager Howard Grossman; private investigator John Nazarian, who was hired by Britney’s legal team in 2007; and cinematographer turned close friend Andrew Gallery, who worked alongside the pop star on MTV’s For the Record.
Below are some of the biggest bombshells in Britney vs Spears based on what the sources said, what the documents reveal and what Carr uncovers about the conservatorship.
Britney vs Spears Executive Producer Jenny Eliscu Tried to Help Britney Secure a New Attorney in 2009
In addition to helping Carr investigate the conservatorship for the purposes of the documentary, Eliscu was a key player in a covert operation to help Britney secure a new lawyer in 2009, only a year into the now 13-year conservatorship. Though the mission ultimately failed, it is significant in that it shows, again, just how early in the conservatorship Britney sought to free herself from the restrictive arrangement that, in large part, has been steered by her father, Jamie Spears.
Eliscu had a prior relationship with the pop superstar after having profiled her for two Rolling Stone covers that arrived at vastly different times in her career. The first came in 2001 when Britney was riding high in the music industry and in the midst of a high-profile, pop royalty relationship with Justin Timberlake. The second assignment, published in December 2008, fell during the early months of Britney’s conservatorship while she was attempting a comeback with the release of her sixth studio album, Circus, after a highly publicized breakdown.
Around that same time, Eliscu says Lutfi told her that he and paparazzo turned Britney boyfriend Ghalib had been working up a plan to help Britney get a new lawyer. Eliscu agreed to help and was tasked with being the one to deliver a document to Britney at Montage Beverly Hills, a luxury hotel on Canon Drive in the heart of the 90210. There, she was to get Britney to sign the petition, which expressed her lack of confidence in court-appointed attorney Samuel Ingham. It stated: “Ms. Spears is of the opinion that he is not advocating adequately on her behalf particularly in light of the severe restrictions placed upon her.”
Eliscu said she spotted Britney lounging by the pool and met her in a nearby bathroom, where she passed her the petition, had her sign it and exchanged pleasantries. “She looked at me and said, ‘Thank you,’ and I said, ‘I’ll see you again,'” Eliscu recalls, breaking down in tears on camera. “She definitely seemed scared. It was hard to tell because I was so scared but she was so appreciative.”
Days passed and Eliscu says she couldn’t believe the news when she found out a week later that the mission had failed similar to what happened when Spears tried to hire Adam Streisand. “It had been ruled that she lacked capacity to choose her own lawyer, and that they had cast enough doubt on to whether that was her signature,” Eliscu claims. “I never heard anything of it again. No one ever talked about it again. Still, no one talks about the fact that there was another attempt to get a lawyer that somehow didn’t work out.”
When Britney’s case goes back into court on Wednesday, she will be represented by famed Hollywood litigator Mathew Rosengart. He came on board this summer when Judge Brenda Penny approved the appointment, marking the first time she has been represented by a lawyer of her own choosing after being deemed mentally unfit to do so. Britney vs Spears saves this development for the end with the rest of the film devoted to the retelling of the conservatorship, other key moments from her career and, of course, those interviews.
Sam Lutfi Denies Drugging Britney Spears
“Sam is the person frequently blamed by both of her parents for her public downfall,” is how Carr characterizes the controversial figure. Though court records indicated that Britney considered him a friend and semi-assistant, Lutfi says he acted as her manager. “We met at a bar,” Lutfi recalls. “Started talking. She was very funny. She had asked me if I’d seen things that were recently in the press. She asked for my phone number and she called. She tells me, ‘I need your help.'”
Lutfi says the divorce from Kevin Federline was taking a toll and insinuated that she wasn’t receiving a shoulder from family members on which to lean. “There were numerous issues going on. Jamie was not involved at all. From what I believe, it had been years,” Lutfi says.
But Lutfi was deeply involved and to others, that was a major issue that led to the creation of the conservatorship. Carr and Eliscu pull up conservatorship documents that state “orders related to dementia placement,” which Eliscu says “is one off the most important filings in the entire conservatorship because when someone is being made a conservatee, they are entitled to five days heads up so that if they want to contest it or find a lawyer, etcetera, they have the time to do that.” Britney was not allowed that time, and she says it was because of Lutfi. “The only reason given for depriving Britney of five days’ notice is that Sam Lutfi is dangerous and needs to be kept away.”
Craker, the Lynne Spears biographer, says “it was total crisis mode with Sam.”
“That is something that I don’t think has really been portrayed correctly is the level of crisis at the moment the conservatorship began. They felt they had to do it to protect Britney from Sam,” says the writer. “He was crushing drugs and putting them in her food and bragging about it.”
Later in the film, Lutfi categorically denies the claims. “We have 100 blood tests and drug tests the entire time I was with her and she passed every single one of them, which is why the police never came to my door. No one ever called the police. To be accused of allegations that serious, that you’re drugging the world’s biggest star, you call the police, you call the FBI, you don’t call TMZ.”
Lutfi alleges that he was the fall guy because he was an easy target. “I was the perfect scapegoat. I was new. They didn’t know who I was. I was just an expendable guy,” he says. “A five-day notice means she would have been notified that this was going to happen and she would’ve had the right to contest to it. She would have obviously contested to it, immediately, and they knew that and everyone knew that. They had to do everything possible to prevent that from happening.”
Adnan Ghalib Recounts Romance, Moment Conservatorship Took Hold
In the aughts, a photo of Britney Spears could fetch “a few hundred thousand dollars,” recalls paparazzo Adnan Ghalib of the fever surrounding the star at a rather intense time in the tabloid landscape that was largely fueled by a cadre of high-profile young celebrities and hungry paparazzi. Ghalib — featured in an off-camera interview and in archival footage — says that if he happened to be absent from the scene one night, she would ask his peers to track him down. Eventually, they connected and formed a romantic relationship.
“It was a very simple, very easy relationship, you know?” he notes. “But between her fans and everybody else, it was like, I was a bad guy.” Ghalib said that like a Disney story, “You want the Prince Charming to be as equally as attractive and as equally as charming,” but there was a disconnect between them that was hard to ignore. “There was this multimillionaire and me. There was this famous girl, and then there was me.”
He alleges that during their time together, Britney took prescription drugs and would stay up for days on end. “There were nights where she was up and I had to stay up with her. It’s hard to stay up for three days. It’s hard but you have that fear, and it’s a very real fear, that if anything happens to her, they’re just going to blame you. It’s just so much easier to blame you. She was taking Adderall,” he claims. “These are the things that become volatile and deadly weapons when you’re going through a child custody case.”
Ghalib also shoots down the use of the term “crazy” to describe Britney. “A lot of people argue that she was crazy, right? You know, I fucking hate that word. Would you say she was upset? Would you say she was angry? Would you say she was hurt? I’d choose those before I’d choose crazy.”
In 2008, after Britney’s breakdown and hospitalization, a conservatorship was granted with Jamie in control. Ghalib says he was out with Britney when he received a call from her father to come home immediately. “He’s like, ‘I need you to come home right now.’ I said, ‘We’ll come home when we come home,’ and he said, ‘No, you need to bring her home now. I’m the conservator of her estate.'”
Ghalib goes on to say that it was “fucking devastating” to pull up to Britney’s gate and see Jamie, four security guards and two police officers standing outside waiting for them. “They’re standing there and she freaks out. ‘What are they doing here? Why are they here? Why is my father at my house? Who are these people? Why are the cops here?’ And she looks at me. I’m supposed to be the one that protects her. I’m trying to calm her down, and I cannot. I’m trying to explain to her, ‘He is your conservator. Without his permission, because he is you, I’ve kidnapped you.’ And it’s that real. She just looks. She doesn’t talk anymore. She’s completely silent. You know, they escort her to the house. That’s when the realization was, ‘OK, I don’t think things are going to be the same anymore.'”
Felicia Culotta Speaks but Abruptly Declines Comment on Three Subjects
After appearances in the two-part New York Times series on FX and Hulu, the veteran assistant and close family friend once again shows up to speak affectionately about Britney, her talent and heart. But when it comes to three specific subjects, Culotta shuts it down. “I don’t want to talk about her daddy,” says Culotta, who served as Britney’s assistant from 1998 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2016. “Jamie wasn’t with us very often — hardly ever. So it really was me and Lynne.”
The second sensitive subject comes when Carr asks Culotta to identify Lou Taylor and her role in Britney’s life. Taylor is founder and CEO of Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group, a business management firm that has overseen Britney’s interests for much of her conservatorship. “Who is Lou Taylor?” Carr asks. “I will not touch that one,” Culotta says, firmly. “Sorry. She will chew me up and spit me out.”
Later, Culotta opens up about spending time with Britney on the Circus and Femme Fatale tours as well as four years in Las Vegas during her residency. When asked about Britney’s love of performing, Culotta gushes only briefly before, once again, clamming up. “Britney loved performing, hands down, still to this second, loves performing. I think that’s probably as much as I can say about that. I don’t want to fight with them. It’s not worth it to me. I’m sorry.”
The Reveal of Confidential Documents
“During the fall of 2020, a source reached out to the filmmakers,” reads a slide that pops up during the film. “They said they wanted the truth out there. The producers have worked to independently corroborate the contents of the leaked reports.”
The trove is confirmed via text from an unknown sender that writes, “I have 1000s of confidential documents and emails from most parties involved with the conservatorship. If you’re trying to fact check something challenging, let me know and I can share what I have.” Another text: “I am happy to help and know you will bring the story, Britney and Conservatees veritas aequitas.” (The last two words of the text are Latin for truth and justice.)
Carr then reveals that the source passed along a report produced by a doctor who resigned from the case in 2013. Included in the materials is a medical report dated March 5, 2008, that states, “Britney Jean Spears lacks the capacity to retain and direct counsel,” adding, “Britney Spears lacks the capacity to understand or manage her financial affairs without being subject to undue influence.”
What’s wild, Eliscu points out, is that, “At the same time this report was being written, Britney was already back to work. She was on the set of How I Met Your Mother. The episode was out within two months of the conservatorship starting. How is someone who was that ill well enough to go to work?”
Per Carr, the original doctor who made the decision was listed on the form as J. Edward Spar. She tracked down geriatric psychiatrist Dr. James Edward Spar, who sat for an interview. He describes himself as retired though he still does an occasional consultation here and there, sometimes involving contested conservatorships. He declines to comment on whether he was or is involved in the case. “I’m not going to acknowledge that I’ve ever met her,” Spar says. “I’m not going to comment on whether I was ever brought in to evaluate Britney Spears.”
He challenges Carr to produce a signed declaration featuring his signature, at which point he would only confirm that it was his signature and nothing more. “I’m not going to talk about whether anybody retained me to see anybody. These are all confidential evaluations.” He went on to say that the ones he has been involved with are conservatorships that helped people, specifically in a way to “protect them from something. Mostly it is a predatory individual after someone’s money.”
Britney Spears Wrote a Letter in Response to Kevin Federline’s People Cover
Cinematographer Andrew Gallery found himself in tight corridors with Britney while shooting the MTV reality special For the Record. They struck up a friendship and became so close that when Britney found herself upset by ex Kevin Federline’s People cover, she handed Gallery a hand-written note in response that she requested he read on television.
“There were a lot of times she would ask me for help, questions about legal issues, or stuff about conservatorships,” he recalls. “I would usually try and deflect these things because if I didn’t have an answer, I didn’t want to give her wrong information. But I know that there were times she did want to speak out and address things and wasn’t really able to.” But when the People cover came out — published in December 2008, it showcased Federline’s side of the story, from their marriage through divorce, and his response to her public breakdown — Gallery took the letter and saved a copy.
It reads (in part): “What happened to Britney was a year ago and people need to get with the times. And as far as Kevin saying Britney divorced him, she was forced to by her lawyers b/c she went to visit him in NY and he wouldn’t see her and the children, and her lawyers said if she doesn’t divorce him he’s going to do it himself. So Kevin trying to play the innocent victim is hardly irevalent [sic]. He left her and the babies. Her going on the mend partying two years ago has nothing to do w/the situation now. She is a completely different person and most of their fighting was done back then b/c of his problem waking and baking to marijuana at 5:00 in the morning. No one talks about these things because no one knows the truth. She was lied to and set up. Her children were taken away and she did spin out of control which any mother would in those circumstances. Now this year Britney has been silenced to speak about anything that’s really going on. The people controlling her life have made 3 million dollars this year. She would love for her new eyes to see her situation, but if she brings it up she’s constantly threatened that the conservators will take her kids away. So how long does this go on for. As long as the people are getting paid she has no rights, it could go on for awhile but it doesn’t make it right at all.”
Gallery never read the letter on TV, but he did show it to members of her team when asked and it set off “a huge fire alarm.” Shortly thereafter, he stopped working for Britney despite growing so close that he was her date to her brother’s wedding. “We had developed a good trust. Maybe we were too close at that point,” he ponders. “Shortly after that, I got removed. I actually don’t think I’ve spoken to her since, and, you know, Britney had met a bunch of my friends. She had sort of come into my life. It was sad to think that she was going to be alone again.”
X-Factor Gig Allegedly Put “Undue Pressure” on Britney Spears
Carr reveals documents that allegedly state that Britney’s $15 million deal to serve as a judge on the reality competition series put undue pressure on the star whereas her manager, Larry Rudolph, argued that withdrawing would be just as bad as a publicly observed meltdown. The conservatorship ultimately approved Britney’s participation on the panel but with strict guidelines. One of those was that fiance Jason Trawick’s presence on set was mandatory.
The section of the documentary also addresses Britney’s medication by quoting a confidential document that stated that, on workdays, the star’s medication was increased: “On the one hand, Jamie and others on the team valued the benefits of stimulants for Britney’s performance. This had been the case for both of her tours and for her participation on X-Factor. By the same token Jamie wanted Britney not to take stimulants. This contradiction has not been resolved.”
Father-Daughter Tensions Began to Boil on Femme Fatale Tour
Per a document, Carr states that “significant tensions” arose between Jamie and Britney toward the end of her successful Femme Fatale Tour that wrapped in December 2011. “Britney began to complain about Jamie’s drinking,” Carr reads. “She is especially adamant that Jamie be punished. This seems to be a lightning rod for all her complaints about the conservatorship itself. In a simple way she feels that if she is drug tested, so should he be. And if she were to suffer a great penalty like losing her kids if she tested positive, he should suffer an equally great penalty for his drinking.”
The document contained “the most damning stuff” because it states that Britney requested an end to the conservatorship, something the estate has countered throughout the arrangement by saying Britney has not once filed or requested to be released from it. “Britney wants to come off the conservatorship,” Carr reads, citing the document. “At times she seems to understand the benefits of the conservatorship. At other times, she indicates she would go along with the conservatorship of the estate. But mostly she wants to end the conservatorship of the person.”
Document: Jason Trawick Felt Conservatorship Was “Too Constrictive”
At one point, Eliscu and Carr take turns reading a memo sent to Ingham from a doctor with the conservatorship. Dated March 18, 2012, the letter claimed that Trawick’s philosophy was that “eventually Britney will have to learn to live without a conservator. He feels that the present arrangement is too constrictive.” They then read numerous inconveniences that the pair are said to have navigated including asking for permission to drive a golf cart through a gated community, calling 20 minutes ahead in order to go to a local burger joint, and if Britney wanted a few hundred dollars to buy books for her children, “She has to ask and then wait a few days for an answer.”
The Estate Returned $1 Million Fee After Missed Pop-Up Appearance
In July 2020, Carr says that Jamie submitted a claim that Britney has refused to work. “As a further sign of her current status, the Conservatee has refused to engage in any business activities, including making a single non-performing appearance at a local pop-up store dedicated to the Conservatee, where minimal effort was required, resulting in the Estate’s being required to refund the advance it had received in the amount of $1,000,000,” reads the document per Carr. Though the pop-up location or name is never mentioned, in 2020, there was a temporary and immersive space dedicated to the career and music of Britney Spears in Los Angeles, and it was called The Zone. “The Conservatee’s lack of cooperation in her own financial well-being and preservation of her continued stature as an iconic artist has deteriorated, rather than improved.”
Carr Received a Legal Notice From Taylor’s Tri Star
High-powered attorney Charles Harder, acting on behalf of Taylor’s Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, sent Carr “a preemptive legal letter” regarding any mention of Taylor and her firm in the film. “The letter was extensive,” Carr notes, before sharing screengrabs of it that state the company was not involved in the creation of the conservatorship, a point of contention for critics who have taken aim at those who profited off Britney’s situation while under the arrangement. “Tri Star representatives were party to certain conversations relating to the issue of a possible conservatorship,” the letter states. “Tri Star did not advocate for or against the creation of a conservatorship, because it was not their place to do so.”
“When I got this notice, I was alarmed,” Carr expains. “But receiving a letter from Lou Taylor or her attorney was not unusual for people involved in this story.”
Conservator Expert Criticizes Court-Appointed Attorney: “He’s on a Gravy Train”
Tony Chicotel, a probate conservatorship attorney, appears prominently throughout as an expert on the subject. And while conservatorships have fallen more sharply into focus in the mainstream media in recent months, the filmmakers allow Chicotel ample time to fully explain what a conservatorship is, who gets in one and how it all works.
“A conservatorship is a legal process for taking somebody’s ability to make their own decisions and giving them to some third party, aka the conservator, or in a lot of other states, it’s the guardian,” he explains. “Obviously, any process to deprive someone of those liberties and those freedoms would be something we would want to impose very rarely, only as a last resort, having tried and exhausted all other alternatives. Some people have called conservatorship tantamount to a civil death.”
He explains that there’s a conservatorship of the person that allows someone to make decisions relating to personal affairs, meaning that the conservatee loses the ability to decide anything relating to health care. “Their ability to provide or withhold consent for treatments including drugs is taken away from them. In many cases, they lose the right to decide who they are going to visit with or receive visits from. They lose the right to communicate with people of their choosing over the telephone, over the computer.”
For conservatorships of the estate — often implemented “hand in hand” with conservatorships of the person, he says — the conservatee is no longer in charge of any of their money. “Theoretically, even the $10 they might have in their pocket.”
Chicotel says that there’s no law on the books that says conservatees have a right to an attorney of their choice, something that represents “a hole in the system, for sure. … We have very particular standards for conservatorship. You have to be unable to meet your needs for food, clothing, health and shelter. So, let me put it this way, I’ve represented dozens of conservatees in court, not one of them has ever had a job.”
Carr asks Chicotel for a reaction to how Ingham has made $3 million from working for Britney, and he replies: “My reaction is that he’s on a gravy train and he’s going to ride it all the way to the end.” Ingham, who declined comment to the filmmakers, recently resigned from the post.
Netflix’s Britney vs Spears is now streaming.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day