The opening day of this year's Sundance Film Festival will be accompanied by some controversy, thanks to a defamation lawsuit filed Tuesday.
David Siegel, a timeshare developer, is calling foul over the promotional materials for "The Queen of Versailles," an Evergreen Pictures documentary that is based on him, his wife Jackie and the construction of their massive mansion in Florida.
The movie — which will premiere on the first day of the festival — is being touted as a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story," which Siegel disputes. He says his reputation has been damaged by the promo materials' claim that his timeshare empire had collapsed.
Siegel is suing the Sundance Institute, which runs the festival; "Queen of Versailles" director Lauren Greenfield; and her husband, executive producer Frank Evers. He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in the suit, which was filed in federal court in Florida and obtained by TheWrap.
Siegel is the CEO and president of Westgate LTD, a privately held timeshare and development company that owns and operates 27 resorts nationwide. One of them is a ski resort in Park City, Utah, which is home to Sundance.
Siegel says that, in August 2007, Greenfield approached him about documenting the construction of Versailles, a mansion Siegel built for he and his wife in Orlando. The 90,000-square-foot home is considered to be the biggest house in the U.S.
Greenfield filmed the construction over the course of four years, during which time Siegel provided Greenfield and her crew with 165 room nights at his resorts, and accommodated them at Versailles. Greenfield was "the beneficiary of [Siegel's] hospitality," the suit claims.
The last time Greenfield and her crew visited Siegel, in November 2011, he told her "he was doing well, that he had successfully resolved his financial issues and that Westgate remained highly profitable. This fact should have been obvious to her based upon the festive mood in Siegel's home and the fact that she was once again provided with free accommodations."
Also during the visit, Greenfield never mentioned that she would be taking "Queen of Versailles" to Sundance. He found out two days later that it had been picked for the festival and was slated to be shown on opening day, Jan. 19.
A Sundance press release about the "rags-to-riches-to-rags story" claims Siegel's "timeshare empire collapse[d]" and that his "house [was] foreclosed."
"Taken individually and collectively, these statements portray Siegel and Westgate as essentially broke and out of business," the suit claims.
Refuting those claims, the suit says Siegel's timeshare empire never collapsed and that Westgate is stable and profitable. Construction only stopped on Versailles because Siegel "decided to dedicate all of his available funds and efforts to Westgate" after the economic collapse began in 2008.
Siegel's financial restructuring enabled the company to weather the financial storm, and in November 2011 Westgate restructured its debt, and now it is stable and profitable, according to the suit.
Siegel contacted Greenfield about the allegedly erroneous promotional materials, the suit says. She and Evers agreed with him that the description "was false, and that they would be taking all necessary steps to correct it."
The description was eventually changed, but by that point, the original description had already appeared on more than 12,000 websites — including Greenfield's. Moreover, the revised description still had the phrase "rags-to-riches-to-rags story."
"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," the suit states.
"Sundance Institute maintains its long-held and firm commitment to freedom of expression and looks forward to screening this film by an award winning filmmaker at the opening of Sundance Film Festival 2012," the organization said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Pamela Chelin)