The Pitch: Jeffrey Epstein was a monster. The self-described “billionaire” financier used his extravagant wealth and power to create a system of sexual abuse and sex trafficking until his death by suicide in 2019 while in jail awaiting prosecution. Told through the lens of his survivors, the new Netflix docuseries, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, chronicles the investigation into his crimes and the attempt to bring him to justice. While this story has been reported exhaustively, Epstein has remained a creature of mystery, due in part to his wealth and his powerful circle of friends. However, in this limited, four-part docuseries, director Lisa Bryant attempts to shake off the veil of secrecy and bring the truth to light.
Each episode begins with footage of a deposition in which Epstein is questioned about his alleged crimes. We see his condescending smirk as he invokes the 5th amendment, intentionally dodges questions, and abandons the deposition altogether when his sense of control is challenged. This footage helps to peel away his charming socialite persona to reveal the narcissistic manipulator beneath.
One of the most infuriating elements of Epstein’s monstrosity is the fact that he essentially avoided all consequences for his crimes. Save for a couple of days in custody awaiting trial, and a 13-month sentence referred to as a “grossly misleading” description of jail time, Epstein avoided punishment for decades of abuse, molestation, rape, and sex trafficking. And for a narcissistic sociopath unable to feel empathy, this is especially galling. He will never acknowledge and accept responsibility for the pain he has inflicted on countless others. Because of this, Filthy Rich attempts to bring some closure to survivors, all while examining the systemic failure that allowed him to thrive.
Master Manipulator: Equally mysterious is the way Epstein amassed his fortune. The series mentions his humble beginnings and his time at the investment bank Bear Stearns. Former executive Michael Tennenbaum describes his decision to keep Epstein on staff after finding out that he had faked his credentials as “one of the most important mistakes of my [sic] career.” We also learn about his relationship with billionaire businessman Leslie Wexner. The series implies that the two may have had a sexual relationship and that Epstein was named power of attorney through blackmail or manipulation, giving him oversight of $1.3 billion in investments. Epstein’s relationship with Wexner is described by convicted felon Steven Hoffenberg, Epstein’s partner in a massive Ponzi scheme, who was attracted to Epstein because “his moral compass was upside down.” These shady business dealings reveal amoral financial circles that allowed Epstein to fund his years of abusive behavior.
Web of Abuse: All this pales in comparison to the “molestation pyramid scheme” Epstein built. The documentary does not shy away from descriptions of his lewd and criminal behavior towards young girls. We hear many stories directly from survivors — some on record for the first time — about abuses ranging from giving massages as he pleasured himself, being pressured to perform sex acts, rape, and sex trafficking. Preying on young girls with troubled home lives, Epstein offered them a way to escape their present circumstances in the form of money for massages, usually leading to coerced sex acts. These stories, intercut with images of the survivors at the time of the assault (some as young as 14), put in perspective the severity of the crime as well as the egregious nature of labeling them underage prostitutes.
Expanding the Web: Also disturbing is the way Epstein treated the girls “working” for him as currency, trafficking them sexually to his powerful friends. As part of his abusive cycle, he used victims to recruit other girls. By centering the story on the survivors, Bryant reminds us that this grooming was part of Epstein’s abusive cycle and avoids blaming the survivors, though it’s clear many blame themselves. Horrific descriptions of rapes occurring on his private island, a story of three twelve-year-old french girls “purchased” for his birthday, and attacks in London and Spain show the worldwide scale of his crimes.
To maintain this network, Epstein used a network of recruiters seemingly led by girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. The docuseries accuses her of not only coordinating and facilitating these assaults, but in actually, taking part in the illegal sex acts. One survivor details threatening calls from Maxwell after reporting her assault to police. Little attention is given to these women, and if the series has a flaw, it’s in not fleshing out this aspect of the story. While Maxwell seems to be an opportunist with the same moral compass as Epstein, the nature of the other women’s relationship to him is unclear. Were they victims themselves? How far back does the cycle go?
Allegations and Revelations: Filthy Rich effectively shows the vast systemic failure that allowed these girls to be victimized for so long. Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter describes his diligent investigation and his frustration at having his hands tied by prosecutors who refused to seriously try the case. Most of the investigation and fighting is done by private investigators and attorneys of the survivors who work creatively to get justice for their clients against Epstein’s all-star legal team. Particularly heinous is Alan Dershowitz, the mastermind behind Epstein’s defense and secretive 2008 plea bargain. He makes clear that he does not concern himself with the feelings of the victims and is ultimately accused of participating in Epstein’s sex trafficking himself.
Epstein’s survivors were failed not only by the system, but by society as a whole. After pleading guilty to two counts of soliciting prostitution (one count with a minor) and on release from his egregiously lax sentence, we’re told that his life picked back up almost immediately. His money granted him coveted places in elite and academic social circles, and he rubbed elbows with A-list stars and powerful politicians. Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker are mentioned, though not outright accused of any wrongdoing.
In what may be the most shocking revelation, Steve Scully, a former maintenance worker on Epstien’s island, provides corroboration of claims that Bill Clinton visited the island (something he continues to deny) although it is important to note that Clinton is also not accused of any wrongdoing. Scully also identifies survivor Virginia Roberts Guiffre as a girl he saw on the island with Prince Albert, providing previously unheard corroboration of her accusations of sex trafficking. Epstein’s associations with Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump are also highlighted, though not expanded upon. However, recorded interviews with Epstein display the same manipulative, rambling speech patterns we now hear from the President on a daily basis, providing an ominous connection that is hinted at but not explored.
Each episode concludes with a parade of printed denial statements from all of the accused co-conspirators. And while some revelations may be noteworthy, most shocking is the fact that this evidence had to be provided by a documentary crew because government officials responsible for protecting these girls, namely Former Us Attorney Alexander Acosta and former State Attorney Barry Krischer, abdicated their duty. This story of power and intimidation paints a clear picture of why so many victims of sexual assault choose not to report.
Strength in Numbers: The series is at its best when amplifying the voices of Epstein’s survivors. One by one, they tell their stories revealing the painful details and providing important insight into the experience of surviving sexual assault and trauma. We see authentic descriptions of dissociation in order to survive, self-medication through substance abuse, self-harm, and the internalized shame unjustly felt by so many victims. Equally heartbreaking is the surprise the survivors feel upon hearing of Epstein’s 2019 arrest, making clear that part of surviving sexual assault is accepting that you may never see justice. Many survivors justify why they didn’t fight back and why they stayed. While not necessary (they are the victims), their stories help combat insidious victim blaming and hopefully allow empathy for those fortunate enough not to have experienced sexual abuse. If this series achieves nothing else, it shows the burden of emotional labor put on survivors when seeking justice for a crime no one wants to acknowledge.
The docu series gives some new forensic evidence that Epstein’s death may not have been by suicide. There’s also mention of multiple cameras in his residences implying his use of manipulation through blackmail, giving many powerful people motive to have him killed. But the waters are muddied by revelations that Epstein transferred his wealth into a trust in the Virgin Islands two days before his death, effectively making it harder for his survivors to receive compensation and implying he expected to die soon. Bryant does not attempt to speculate as to his death, but insists that those responsible for facilitating and covering up his crimes should be held accountable as well.
The Verdict: Ultimately, Filthy Rich attempts to ask the question: What do we do when justice is not available? Suicide or not, Epstein’s death prevented him from facing serious consequences for his crimes. But monsters like him rarely do. There is some solace in the fact that he won’t be able to hurt anyone else. But how many more Epsteins are out there? What can we do to make sure we don’t become part of the system protecting them?
Some survivors did get to confront Epstein before he died. Judge Richard M. Berman allowed them to have their day in court even after his death. Let this and Bryant’s willingness to let survivors drive the story be the model for how we treat victims going forward. In the final episode, two survivors hold hands in fear on the way to the courtroom but acknowledge that there is comfort and strength in numbers. Every time I hear a survivor tell their story, it makes it easier to tell mine. We need to share our stories with each other so that we can find common ground and empowerment through connection. We need to provide a safe space for survivors to speak. Even when it hurts to listen.
Where’s It Playing? Filthy Rich is currently streaming its filthy truths on Netflix.