January 15, 2012 / 8:58 PM / 7 years ago

"Riches-to-rags" film on opulent family home prompts lawsuit

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Time share mogul David Siegel welcomed a filmmaker’s proposal in 2007 to document his construction of what was to be the nation’s largest family home — an opulent 90,000-square-foot mansion named “Versailles” after the French palace and conceived during a housing boom.

More than four years and a global economic collapse later, Siegel has filed a $75,000 lawsuit against the filmmakers and the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary premieres on January 19, for what he calls defamation of character.

The house, with bowling alleys, a children’s theater and 20-car garage, never fully materialized amid the economic downturn. It remains unfinished and is up for sale.

In materials promoting the film, Sundance calls it a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story that reveals the “innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.”

The promotions characterize Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time share business as faltering — a description Siegel’s attorneys say is not only damaging but inaccurate.

The suit names filmmaker Lauren Greenfield along with Sundance. It also takes issue with initial promos, later corrected by Sundance, which stated inaccurately that the house was foreclosed on and that Siegel’s business had collapsed.

“I don’t know anyone in the last three years that didn’t suffer (economically), but they are certainly far from being in rags and the company collapsing,” Siegel’s lawyer Michael Marder told Reuters.

Marder said Greenfield spent last Thanksgiving in a complimentary room at one of Siegel’s Orlando-area resorts and visited the Siegel family at their 20,000-square-foot-home.

“It was obvious to her there was no problem, no collapse,” Marder said.

Greenfield’s publicist, Chris Libby, would not comment on the suit, while Sundance stood behind the film in a prepared statement from the institute.

“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 premiere will take place in Park City, Utah, where Siegel’s company owns a ski resort.

Siegel stopped construction of Versailles during the economic collapse to dedicate all his funds to the business, according to the suit.

As a result, Westgate survived and is a stable and profitable company, the suit says.

Marder said Westgate employs more than 5,000 people in 27 resorts in seven states.

Marder said Siegel still owns Versailles and that the property is up for sale, but he would not name the price.

The mansion is ranked third in Wikipedia’s list of largest privately owned houses in the United States.

The two larger houses — the 135,000-square-foot Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina and the 109,000-square-foot Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York — function respectively as a museum and a hotel.

Siegel’s house was listed for sale $75 million in 2010, when it was described as 12 to 18 months from completion.

The plans included a two-lane bowling alley, roller rink, arcade, children’s theater, 20-car garage and a grand hall as big as three average homes.

Edited by Karen Brooks and Ellen Wulfhorst

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