Netflix's Shocking Docuseries 'Filthy Rich' Presses the Case Against Jeffrey Epstein
After four episodes, the mysterious billionaire remains a creepy cypher.
With his access to vast wealth and proximity to incredible power, Jeffrey Epstein, the predatory billionaire at the center of an international sex-trafficking ring, is a uniquely gripping subject for an investigative documentary, the type of explosive deep-dive that creates headlines and re-contextualizes previously reported revelations. So, it was hardly surprising when Netflix, the home of a growing number of flashy true crime movies and shows, announced the release of Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich, a four-part documentary series directed by Lisa Bryan and executive produced by Joe Berlinger, the filmmaker behind the Paradise Lost trilogy, and James Patterson, the author of countless bestsellers. Epstein died last summer under heavily shrouded and frustratingly mysterious circumstances in federal prison before standing trial for his many alleged crimes, but -- in theory, at least -- a Netflix documentary provides its own form of justice.
Given Patterson's involvement in the project -- the series takes its title and draws material from a non-fiction book he co-authored with John Connolly and Tim Mallo in 2016 -- it's reasonable to expect a degree of tabloid speculation and stylistic bombast. (The wildly prolific author, who recently announced that he's collaborating on another novel with known Epstein associate Bill Clinton, makes only a brief appearance in the series as a talking head.) But viewers actively searching for conspiracy fodder, more material to add to the string-covered cork board of the mind, will instead find a carefully sourced, self-consciously scrupulous attempt to untangle some of the mysteries in Epstein's biography while also giving voice to the many young women he abused.
As a bracing collection of first-hand testimonials, a document of lived experience and psychological trauma, Filthy Rich displays an admirable commitment to letting the victims tell their stories in their own words. Opening with footage of Epstein at a deposition hearing in 2012, the first episode uses journalist Vicky Ward's thwarted Vanity Fair profile from 2003, which did not include allegations from sisters Maria and Annie Farmer that ended up getting cut from the article, as a jumping off point to interview the women who alleged they were targeted by Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell. (Almost every episode ends with an on-screen reminder that Maxwell, who remains at large, denies all the allegations against her.)
With the assistance of a clinical psychologist, the series establishes what one lawyer refers to as Epstein's "sexual pyramid scheme," a process where the billionaire would recruit underage women, many with troubled home lives and histories of abuse, to have sex with and then use them to bring him other potential-victims to his cavernous home in Palm Beach, his large penthouse in Manhattan, and, eventually, his private island in the Virgin Island, Little St. James. It's chilling to hear the same details recounted by different victims across different time periods and different continents.
For viewers who have carefully followed the case, reading the invaluable reporting in the Miami Herald that helped lead to Epstein's arrest in 2018 and poring over interviews with peripheral figures like Epstein bodyguard Igor Zinoviev, Filthy Rich offers a handful of new bits of information. Steve Scully, a contractor who worked on numerous projects at Little St. James, alleges that he saw both Prince Andrew and Bill Clinton on the island. (While the former president has acknowledged that he flew on Epstein's private plane numerous times, Clinton has denied that he was ever on the island. Many political figures and celebrities, including Donald Trump, have associated with Epstein over the years.) The testimony from Epstein victim Haley Robson, who was recruited to give Epstein a massage for $200 at the age of 16, describes her harrowing role in Epstein's network of abuse in a vulnerable manner that sheds more light on how he manipulated his victims.
But, for the most part, Filthy Rich summarizes the Epstein backstory, which involves being hired as a teacher by current U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr's father at a Manhattan private school, a brief career at Bear Stearns in the late '70s and early '80s, and a mysterious connection to L Brands magnate Les Wexner, in a dutiful way that rarely goes much deeper than a magazine article. The interviews with attorneys and law enforcement officials go to great lengths to establish how challenging it can be to build a case against a criminal like Epstein, a man with unlimited resources and connections to those in power. But the mechanics of his blackmail operation, the way he maintained and grew his influence, remain opaque. How did he remain free for so long? Who did he have the ear of? What made him untouchable?
The abundance of unanswerable questions isn't helped by the occasional sluggish pacing, a common feature of Netflix docuseries that often feel like they could be edited down to more satisfying movies, and frustrating aesthetic choices that undermine the power of the interviews. As a piece of filmmaking, an argument presented in four inter-linked chapters, the series is visually uninspired, relying on aerial drone footage to create a sense of globe-hopping menace and repetitive shots of the survivors standing on beaches to suggest the possibility of hope and renewal. At one point late in the film, as a talking-head describes the dangers of the Manhattan jail where Epstein was found dead, Bryant cuts to footage of a rat scurrying across a city street, the type of weary symbolism that would feel cheesy in a Court TV documentary.
Arriving in the same week as HBO Max'sOn the Record, an examination of the alleged abuse committed by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons, Filthy Rich sits awkwardly amidst a recent crop of films that attempt to hold public figures like Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and Harvey Weinstein accountable. Unlike those other powerful men, who made their fortunes through the arts and left an indelible mark on popular culture in their chosen fields, Epstein was just a rich guy who most people would have no reason to know about outside of his monstrous crimes. In the moments he's onscreen in Filthy Rich, he's both defiant and aloof. Even after four hours under the microscope, he remains largely unknowable. At the very least, the survivors are heard and understood, their stories shining a light on a case that feels like it's still unraveling.
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