Promotion Of 2012 Sundance Film Festival Leads To Defamation Showdown

Park City Utah - H 2011

Park City Utah - H 2011

The Sundance Film Festival will open this year amid legal controversy. David Siegel, a real estate mogul who has constructed a $75 million mansion called America's Versailles in the heart of Orlando, is suing the organization that runs the festival and director Lauren Greenfield for defamation for hyping the upcoming documentary, The Queen of Versailles, as a film telling a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story."

The Queen of Versailles has been given a plum spot at this year's Sundance, which begins Jan. 19. The film will premiere on opening day and is seen as a strong contender in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

But the subject of the film, Siegel, who runs Westgate Resorts, LTD, a privately held timeshare and development company that owns and operates 27 resorts around the country including a ski resort in Park City, Utah, where the festival is held, is terribly upset with the film.

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On Tuesday, Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit in Florida federal court against the Sundance Institute, Greenfield and executive producer Frank Evers, accusing them of taking advantage of his generosity.

According to the complaint, Greenfield approached Siegel in 2007 about a possible documentary. Siegel agreed to be filmed, and allowed footage to be shot at his developing Versailles, a 90,000-square-foot home that reportedly boasts 13 bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, 11 kitchens, and a 20-car garage. Greenfield and her crew took up residence in the resort during some of the four years of filming.

In 2008, Lehman Bros. collapsed and the global economic crisis began. The credit and capital markets froze, and Westgate's access to financing was restricted. Many homes were foreclosed upon throughout the country, but Siegel says that Westgate's sales remained strong. Nevertheless, the economic turmoil impacted his company, forcing Siegel to sel hisl interest in the Planet Hollywood Towers in Las Vegas and restructure debt.

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Building a lavish home in the midst of a real estate crisis became fodder for Greenfield's documentary film.

The Queen of Versailles was accepted into the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and the Institute that runs the annual indie film celebration put out a press release that described the film as such:

"The Queen of Versailles / U.S. (Director Lauren Greenfield) - Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America - a sprawling 90,000 square-foot palace inspired by Versailles - when their timeshare empire collapses and their house is foreclosed. Their rags-to-riches-to rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream."

Siegel objected to the characterization that his empire had collapsed, that the house was foreclosed upon, and that he reflected a rags-to-riches-to rags story.

So he contacted Greenfield last month, who agreed to make changes. The description soon read:

"Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America -- a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot palace inspired by Versailles -- when their timeshare empire falters due to the economic crisis. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream."

Siegel still is not satisfied, saying that the phrase "rags-to-riches-to rags story" continues to be a false and defamatory statement describing him and Westgate. He alleges that the description has appeared on over 12,000 websites, including Greenfield's own.

"Sundance's, Greenfield's and Evers' continued campaign and proliferation of false and defamatory statements regarding Siegel and Westgate is motivated by ill will and malice, and at the very least with a reckless disregard for the truth," says the plaintiff's lawsuit, which adds that since the Sundance description went out, Siegel has been receiving inquiries from various owners and potential customers questioning the financial security of Westgate.

What makes this case potentially interesting is the fact that Sundance, started by Robert Redford, has connections with resorts in Park City that are arguably a competitor to some of Siegel's properties in the area. And obviously, the American Dream now includes being the subject of a documentary and being the lead behind a lawsuit.

Siegel is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The Sundance Institute hasn't yet responded to a request for comment.


Twitter: @eriqgardner