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The Britney Spears Story Just Gets More Harrowing

Controlling Britney Spears and Britney vs. Spears shift the focus from Britney Spears onto the forces that have controlled her life.

Posted on October 1, 2021, at 10:23 a.m. ET

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Britney Spears poses at the premiere of Once Upon a Time In Hollywood in Los Angeles on July 22, 2019.

“I want to be able to be heard on what they did to me,” Britney Spears said in court testimony in June, alluding to her management, family, and the conservatorship that has dominated her life starting in 2008.

And since the #FreeBritney fan movement ushered her conservatorship from the shadowy realm of conspiracy theories into the mainstream, Spears has been speaking out more and more. She hired a new lawyer and got her father removed from her conservatorship. And more content chronicling her story continues to appear. Podcasts, long-form articles, and now documentaries have all come out about her life and the arrangement over the past year.

In February, the FX and Hulu production Framing Britney Spears, directed by Samantha Stark, achieved Emmy-nominated respectability by analyzing the media coverage of Spears’ life and career. Spears herself, however, criticized the film, which she said focused on “humiliating moments from the past.” She has since spoken out against a BBC documentary (The Battle For Britney: Fans, Cash, and a Conservatorship) and a CNN documentary (Toxic: Britney Spears' Battle For Freedom).

Two new higher-profile productions debuted within the past month. Controlling Britney Spears, a kind of sequel to Framing Britney, came out last week, and Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears dropped this week. Perhaps in an attempt to preempt criticism about their intrusiveness, both documentaries mostly shift the focus from Spears herself to the forces that have controlled her. The Netflix film is more comprehensive, though it gets into ethically questionable territory by covering an ongoing story involving mental health.

Both films focus on most of the same material and time period. They zero in on the era around 2007, right after Spears divorced Kevin Federline and started having custody issues, and 2008, when the conservatorship was established.

Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears raises lingering questions more directly than even Framing Britney Spears did. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu, who once wrote two Rolling Stone cover stories on Spears, act as stand-ins for viewers as they discuss the evolution of the story.

The documentary revisits the establishment of the conservatorship, which Spears’ parents, especially her father, framed as a necessary device to protect her from outside influences such as Adnan Ghalib, the paparazzo who Spears started a relationship with after her divorce, and Sam Lutfi, who claimed to be her manager.

Both men talk to the filmmakers to point out that the conservatorship wasn’t necessary. Ghalib makes the point that Spears wrote parts of the Blackout album in front of him on a Starbucks napkin, while Lutfi claims that he became an easy scapegoat for the media and her parents. It seems questionable for a documentary about women’s agency to allow Lutfi to contest some of the wilder conspiracy theories about him without noting that he has been accused of enmeshing himself in the lives of young women.

But alongside Ghalib’s perspective, the film does raise questions about the odd benefit of doubt given to Spears’ family and their account of her state of mind at the time. There has always been ableist speculation that perhaps there’s something not known about Spears or her mental health that would require a conservatorship. Even Adam Streisand, a lawyer Spears tried to hire to contest the conservatorship, said in Framing Britney Spears that he didn’t know what he didn’t know, implying some secret diagnosis might merit what happened.

Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears raises lingering questions more directly than even Framing Britney Spears did.

Britney vs. Spears shows how Spears’ mental health was weaponized against her, even as she was made to work nonstop. But like the BBC production, the documentary gets into ethically murky territory when it tries to speculate about the diagnosis that led to the courts granting the conservatorship. That is ultimately immaterial given the evidence of alleged abuses of power and misogyny around Spears since.

Both films mention the way she was working within weeks of the conservatorship’s establishment: going on tour to promote 2008’s Circus and appearing in the MTV comeback documentary For The Record. As with that documentary, there are only glimpses of her voice here. For instance, For The Record’s cinematographer presents a letter Spears gave him where she attempted to contest a glossy People magazine cover story about Kevin Federline, where she felt he tried to sell himself as a perfect dad and herself as an irresponsible mother. (The letter was never published.)

But the most compelling investigative efforts are focused on the people and institutions who benefited from the financial arrangements of the conservatorship once it was established. The documentaries introduce Lou Taylor, a manager in the Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, whom a Spears biographer points out the family trusted because of their shared Christian background.

Taylor allegedly also suggested placing Lindsay Lohan in conservatorship, and Controlling emphasizes that another Tri Star employee, Robin Greenhill, suddenly appeared in Spears’ inner circle as a controlling daily manager even though she and Taylor were technically business managers. And their entertainment company, Tri Star, received a $500,000 payment from Jamie Spears despite Spears being on hiatus at the time.

Sources close to Spears talk about how her father terrified her and talked down to her; she herself has already spoken out about her family and father on her Instagram. (Her sons, who are 14 and 15, also were granted a restraining order against him back in 2019).

The creepy misogyny that permeates the entire story paints a disturbing picture wherein Spears’ voice was erased again and again.

In Controlling Britney Spears, a member of the security company hired after the conservatorship began points out that Spears’ entire life was recorded and/or surveilled, even her conversations with her children and lawyer. Her wardrobe manager remembers how Spears’ budget was strictly controlled, and she couldn’t even buy Skechers shoes or indulge in sushi. She also recalls Spears’ fear that marijuana smoke at a concert could mean she might fail a drug test and not be allowed to see her children. From her assistant to former creative directors, they all highlight how people close to Spears were separated from her if they got too close, in a pattern reminiscent of a cult.

The creepy misogyny that permeates the entire story — from the management to her family to the judicial system, including one judge in particular who demeans her in court — paints a disturbing picture wherein Spears’ voice was erased again and again. As she tries on one occasion to have her lawyer, Sam Ingham, ask to have her father subjected to random drug screenings like her own, the judge replies, "Who is she to be demanding that of anybody?” The judge even says to Ingham that he might not want to mention to Spears that she had a right to get married.

The different ways all the people surrounding Spears dehumanize her is a reminder of how the story highlights issues that transcend this particular scenario — from disability rights to the treatment of young women in the ruthlessly capitalistic entertainment industry.

Her new attorney, Mathew Rosengart, comments at the end of Britney vs. Spears that the evidence that has been uncovered of alleged abuse, especially by her dad, would ultimately help release her from the arrangement. In court, he called Jamie Spears "a toxic, abusive alcoholic.” Her father has now been removed, and Spears seems on her way to extricating herself from the conservatorship.

Through her attorney, Spears refused to participate in the documentaries. Still, especially now that her father has been removed, it’s questionable why all this content focusing on some of the most traumatizing years of Spears’ life is being revisited without her perspective at the center. (Filmmaker Carr did point out that she purposely avoided using images from 2007 that Spears has deemed traumatic.)

In her court testimony, Spears said that keeping the conservatorship “a hush hush secret” was only benefiting those who were wielding it against her. “I also would like to be able to share my story with the world and what they did to me,” she added. After thirteen years of silence, she has spoken out strategically throughout the legal maneuvering. She has also spoken out against the onslaught of documentaries. Still, the media and fans seem to want answers about everything; they hope that Spears will one day sit down and tell all. Yet even before the conservatorship, Spears was a private person. In For The Record, the documentarian asked her why she never spoke out during the height of her paparazzi surveillance era. Her reply? “I didn’t think it was anyone’s business, really.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.