Sundance 2012: Key Flaw Exposed in Lawsuit Targeting Opening Night Documentary

The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield

Why It Will Sell: Despite the legal controversy that has arisen around the film, this doc about a wealthy couple whose dream of building the biggest house in America is cratered by the economic crisis couldn't be more timely.

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Rep: Submarine

Of the couple hundred or so films showing at the Sundance Film Festival over the next week and a half, only one arrives under a high-profile legal cloud. The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield's documentary about the real estate mogul who commissioned a $75 million Florida mansion before getting caught up in the housing crash, was the subject of a widely-publicized Jan. 10 lawsuit claiming that the Sundance marketing materials' description of the film was defamatory.

David Siegel, who runs the Westgate Resorts timeshare company and built the half-finished, 90,000-square-foot mansion called America's Versailles, has sued festival organizers, Greenfield and executive producer Frank Evans, objecting to the characterization in a press release that his empire had faltered and what happened to he and his wife is a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story."

Just one problem with the claim: In the film, which screened Thursday evening as one of the festival's opening night showcases, Siegel says pretty much those exact words on camera when referring to his situation.

We were in the Eccles Theater and jotted down Siegel's quote:

"This is the reverse of a rags-to-riches story. This is a kind of riches-to-rags story."

So why would Siegel file a defamation lawsuit targeting a characterization that he himself uses to describe his situation? True, he alleges the Sundance description of his empire as "faltering" is false too (he still owns Westgate, as well as a popular timeshare property in Park City). But there were some other clues at the premiere.

First off, neither Siegel nor his wife had seen the film before filing suit. Jackie Siegel, whom THR's reviewer calls a "an aging trophy wife with outrageous breasts and a weak spot for garish fashions," was in the crowd for the premiere (without her husband). Greenfield introduced her by saying Jackie wouldn't be answering questions because she needed "a little space to absorb the film" after seeing it for the first time. (The director also declined to talk about the lawsuit when asked during a post-screening Q&A.)

Second, chatter in the lobby after the film suggested that David Siegel filed suit to get his story out there before the premiere of a documentary that he had a good suspicion would not paint him in a flattering light. That makes sense. Lawsuits often are used as press releases, and the Siegels probably got nervous when they saw that unflattering description in the marketing materials. 

Still, truth is a defense to defamation cases, and Siegel has given Sundance's lawyers a great argument that he admits the truth of the matter via his own words. It wouldn't be surprising if this case settles pretty quickly.

We slipped into the no-press-allowed afterparty for the film at the High West Distillery on Park Ave. to see if Jackie Siegel had had enough time to absorb the film and would want to chat about the movie and the lawsuit. She was there, smoking outside in a leopard-print dress and fur jacket, but alas she was whisked away before we were able to chat. 


Twitter: @THRMattBelloni