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‘Queen of Versailles’ filmmakers fend off defamation charges

First Published      Last Updated Mar 14 2014 03:49 pm

The two-year legal battle over "The Queen of Versailles," started when one of the documentary's subjects sued the filmmakers for defamation, is done — and the filmmakers won.

An arbitrator for the International Film and Television Alliance this week ruled that timeshare magnate David Siegel and his company, Westgate Resorts, did not prove that filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and her producers had defamed Siegel or Westgate.

The documentary, which opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, followed the financial troubles of Westgate — which sells vacation timeshares at resorts all over the country (including one in Park City) — as the housing "bubble" popped in the economic collapse of 2008. Greenfield also captured life in the Siegel home, where Siegel's wife Jacqueline struggled to trim her family's lavish lifestyle.

Siegel claimed the film defamed him and the company. Furthermore, he claimed defamation in the one-line synopsis of the film in the December 2011 press release from the Sundance Institute, which announced that "The Queen of Versailles" was chosen for the Sundance Film Festival's slate. (Initially, Sundance was charged as a co-defendant, but was later removed from the lawsuit — which moved from federal court to an arbitration proceeding.)

The arbiter, Roy G. Rifkin, ruled that Siegel and Westgate did not prove defamation, either in the film itself or in the Sundance press release. (For example, the offending part of the press release, calling it a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story," was in fact based on something Siegel himself said in the film.)

Rifkin ordered Westgate to pay the filmmakers $750,000 in legal fees — less than what the filmmakers' lawyers sought.

(For a thorough legal analysis of all this, read Eriq Gardner's blog in The Hollywood Reporter.)