Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 26th, 2020
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Lisa Bryant, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.
Is there a better avatar for the grotesque excesses and abuses of late-stage capitalism than Jeffrey Epstein? He may have finally met an ignominious end – ruled a suicide, though some believe he was killed – in August of 2019, but until then he raped and pillaged his way through the world, a true robber baron of this (and any) age. In the new Netflix series (a four-parter) Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, director Lisa Bryant walks the viewer through the sordid, violent and supremely disturbing history of the man, from how he got his obscene riches (answer: not by legal means) and what he did with them. That’s just part of the tale, however, for the true focus of the episodes is the women who were victimized and their often difficult journey to finding a voice and pushing back. They are the main characters, and this story is for them.
With opening disclaimers about the content within, and ending disclaimers about how the surviving abusers deny all wrongdoing, the series covers its legal bases while pushing hard against the system that enabled Epstein and his social circle. Born into no great wealth, he began his ascent to the top, after being fired by the now-defunct Bear Stearns investment firm, by first participating in a massive pyramid-scheme and then attaching himself to billionaire Les Wexner, founder of L (formerly Limited) Brands. The rest is murky, but beyond understanding the basic premise that Epstein had no moral scruples about anything, we are not here to analyze every last transaction that led to his rise.
Rather, we are here to listen, first to sisters Maria and Annie Farmer, Epstein’s earliest accusers, and then to others like Chauntae Davies, Virginia Giuffre, Michelle Licata, Sarah Ransome, Shawna Rivera and Haley Robson describe how – for most of them when they were young teens – the man operated. He was obsessed with body rubs as an entry point, recruiting girls from high schools near his mansion in Palm Beach to come give him a massage that would quickly turn sexual. Aided and abetted by his right-hand woman Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of fallen British newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, he was ruthless in his methods and insatiable in his appetites. He and Maxwell had a knack for finding girls from poor backgrounds who had previously been abused, leveraging the promise of lavish rewards in exchange for sex, not only with Epstein but with those other older men to whom he would traffic them.
We also meet the many hard-working lawyers hired by the women (now all adults and still traumatized by their experiences with Epstein), as well as the man who was Palm Beach Police Chief in the 2000s, when the initial accusations came to light, and the reporters who covered the case. Back then, it seemed as if Epstein would see serious prison time, as who would not consider coerced sex with minors a heinous crime, but he avoided the worst, serving less than a year in a minimum-security jail (where he could check out every morning to work in his office), thanks to his money and connection to powerful people. These friends in high places include England’s Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and others. Everyone loves a pedophile, apparently.
Bryant, a producer (Young, Hot & Crooked) making her directorial debut, wastes no time building up outrage, diving into the worst of it right away to remind us, at every step, of the context behind Epstein’s seemingly glorious lifestyle. Her approach is particularly effective in all the interviews and scenes with defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, himself accused by one of the women of abuse, who can wax as eloquent as he might about the necessity of good legal defense (a statement with which I agree), yet cannot dispel the notion that Epstein was as crooked and depraved as they come. Though some in the media have referred to Epstein’s victims as “underaged prostitutes” (think about that phrase for a moment, which should enrage by its built-in assumptions), they were underage girls with whom he had sex. For that crime, he and anyone who participated in the same should pay. End of discussion.
Of course, Epstein did eventually pay, and with his life (unless one believes that his death is a hoax, a rumor Bryant briefly addresses), but not before he was able to wreak untold harm on countless women. Fortunately, the act of coming forward and meeting other victims appears, at least here, to be profoundly cathartic for many of them, since they were ignored for so long. And that is the beauty that finally emerges from this horrible affair: wounded though they may be, at least they find comfort together. It’s too bad that this is how they met, but together they can move forward, and we, thanks to the immensely powerful Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, are here to bear witness. Let them speak.