Amid a flurry of new documentaries about pop singer Britney Spears and her unusual conservatorship — timed to what could be a pivotal court hearing Wednesday — Netflix has released its own entry: “Britney vs. Spears,” directed by Erin Lee Carr and executive-produced by journalist Jenny Eliscu.
The film, which began streaming Tuesday, reveals a trove of documents obtained via anonymous leaks, adding support for Spears’s recent statements to the court and the swirling innuendo about the conditions and inner workings of her conservatorship. The new evidence also peels back a few more layers in the case that was largely concealed from public view for more than a decade but has been attracting global attention for much of this year.
A conservatorship, generally speaking, is intended to protect someone who can’t take care of themselves, but the singer has argued that her professional work and her ability to execute everyday functions show that the end of this legal arrangement is overdue.
Below are three major revelations the Netflix documentary has to offer.
Conservators not only got power over Spears’s personal life, but they allegedly could use her money for their own benefit
According to “Britney vs. Spears,” court papers from Feb. 6, 2008, outline a number of powers that the conservatorship granted to the conservators, including Spears’s father, Jamie. Conservators had the power to access all records related to Spears’s estate, to enter and take possession of Spears’s home (and to kick people out of it), to issue restraining orders and hire security, to use her money to pay for legal fees, to open and operate businesses and to hire for a number of positions using funds from Spears’s estate.
Later, in 2009, when the conservatorship became permanent, more powers were added. Jamie Spears soon had the power to lease a car for himself using funds from Spears’s estate, to cancel her credit cards and to pursue new business opportunities on her behalf on the condition they were approved by her medical team.
The film includes a statement from Jamie Spears and his legal team stating, “Mr. Spears has dutifully and faithfully served as the Conservator of his daughter’s estate after thirteen years of admirable service.” His daughter has requested he be removed as conservator, and he recently filed a document saying he would step down “when the time is right.”
Spears’s acquaintances worked behind the scenes to help her
According to “Britney vs. Spears,” soon after the conservatorship was established, Adnan Ghalib — a former paparazzo who befriended Spears and was later her boyfriend — went with Spears to a meeting with Howard Grossman, her former business manager. Grossman put them in touch with Adam Streisand, a lawyer. Spears tried to retain Streisand as her lawyer in the battle against her conservatorship, but Streisand was dismissed on the grounds that Spears did not have the capacity to retain counsel.
The following year, Sam Lutfi, a former manager and sometime close friend of Spears, told Eliscu, the doc’s executive producer, that he and Ghalib were still working together to try to get Spears a new lawyer. In the film, Eliscu says the pair had been talking to new lawyers who believed that if Spears signed a statement saying she wanted to hire one of them to replace her court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, the court would have to allow it. Lufti and Ghalib drew up a petition on her behalf to “retain and pay independent counsel.” Eliscu, who profiled Spears for Rolling Stone, eventually became part of the effort to help her get out of her conservatorship — and she says in the film that she wound up secretly meeting Spears in a bathroom at the Montage Hotel in Los Angeles to have her sign the petition.
Spears reached out to others for help, but they didn’t so readily give it. Andrew Gallery, cinematographer of the Spears-centric 2008 documentary project, “For the Record,” became a close friend and says in the film that she often came to him with questions about legal issues. He deflected, often because he didn’t know the answers; when she asked to use his phone, he steered her away.
And after a People cover story came out about her ex-husband Kevin Federline, their sons and the family’s life without her, Spears gave Gallery a letter she wanted him to read on TV about what was really happening in their dissolving marriage. In the letter, Spears alleged that Federline had been abusing marijuana daily, and that she was being coerced into the divorce by her father. (A representative for Federline didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“I always just felt bad for her,” Gallery says in an on-screen interview. “I felt bad that this was her reality and her world.” Still, Gallery admits to doing nothing with the letter.
Spears’s complaints about the conservatorship were well-documented but ignored by the court
A particularly poignant moment of “Britney vs. Spears” reveals audio the filmmaker obtained of a voice mail Spears left for a lawyer late one night in January 2009. “During the process of eliminating the conservatorship … my father has threatened me several times to … take my children away,” Spears says. “I just want to be guaranteed that everything will … stay the same as far as my custodial time.”
After Spears’s failed attempt to retain Streisand as her lawyer, she filed the January 2009 petition created with the help of Lutfi, Ghalib and Eliscu. “Britney Jean Spears has expressed her lack of confidence in her court-appointed attorney Samuel Ingham, III. Ms. Spears is of the opinion that he is not advocating adequately on her behalf particularly in light of the severe restrictions placed upon her,” the petition read. “This woman who can complete two new CDs and be set to go on a national tour has sufficient capacity, after nearly one year of a protective conservatorship, to retain counsel of her choice, and in whom she has confidence.”
One week later, Eliscu says in an on-screen interview, she heard that the court had once again ruled that Spears did not have the capacity to retain counsel. In court documents from one week after the petition, the film states, Ingham acknowledged that Spears had signed paperwork asking for his replacement. Still, he alleged that Spears did not actually want that and was “in fact fully satisfied” with his representation.
“I never heard anything about it again,” Eliscu says. “No one ever talked about it again.”
Ingham didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. He resigned as Spears’s lawyer in July and was replaced by former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart.
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