If you ever needed proof that the ultra-rich play by a different set of rules, you need look no further than the story of Jeffrey Epstein. The billionaire spent years sexually abusing underage girls, and even after he was caught, he still managed to keep getting away with it. Lisa Bryant‘s emotionally draining docuseries Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich seeks to explain how this happened – how Epstein continued to thrive while rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful. But more important than that, it seeks to give voice to Epstein’s victims, and show them for the survivors they are.
Who was Jeffrey Epstein? A mysterious man – someone calls him a “Gatsby-like figure” during the docuseries – who made a fortune on Wall Street, he managed to accrue so much money that he essentially bought himself his own world. In this world, he was free to do as he pleased, and he did, buying up multiple mansions all over the globe, and even his own private island. And with that wealth and power came a terrifying ability to avoid consequences. As Filthy Rich details, Epstein set up what amounted to a “sexual pyramid scheme” in Florida. He would recruit underage girls to come to his house on Palm Beach Island, offering them $200 to give him a massage. The massage would inevitably turn into sexual abuse. From there, Epstein would then find ways to turn some of his victims into his pawns, having them go out and recruit more girls to bring back.
But none of this was out in the open. At least not at first. When tasked with writing a profile on Epstein for Vanity Fair, journalist Vicky Ward came across Maria Farmer and her sister Annie Farmer, two young women who claimed to be sexually abused by Epstein. The sexual abuse made it into Ward’s piece, and as is the custom, Epstein was contacted to comment on the allegations. He denied the abuse, and then proceeded to drop not-so-subtle threats, saying things like “If I don’t like this piece it’s going to be very bad for you and your family.”
After more threats and other bad omens – at one point, Ward’s editor found a severed cat head in his yard and a bullet on his doorstep – any mention of the sexual abuse was pulled from the story, which ended up being a puff-piece on Epstein and his wealth, with some suggesting that the Vanity Fair editor was bought off. This was just one example of the way Epstein was able to throw his weight around to ensure he remained protected.
Epstein had an almost preternatural gift for manipulating people and bending them to his will, but as Filthy Rich underscores, again and again, that ability wouldn’t have been so destructive if Epstein hadn’t been so, well, filthy rich. With his staggering wealth, Epstein was able to essentially buy his victims into his service by offering them things – full college payments, exotic trips, introductions into high society circles. He had money to burn, and he did, all in the name of satisfying his own horrible urges. Many of his victims were girls from broken homes, desperate to get out of their current situation. Epstein’s home on the wealthy Palm Beach Island was just a short trip across a bridge. On the other side of that bridge was West Palm, a lower-class area full of trailer parks. It was as if Epstein was some malevolent force able to extend his reach across that bridge, over that body of water, and pull the girls of West Palm to the wealthy Palm Beach Island. And into his grasp.
A docuseries about the story of Jeffrey Epstein is bound to be a hard watch, and Filthy Rich is often a dispiriting, even soul-crushing experience. Again and again, Epstein is able to do whatever he wants. And just when things seem like they’re finally going to catch up with the billionaire pedophile – like when Florida law enforcement finally had enough to arrest Epstein, only for Alex Acosta, then the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, to cut a shocking sweetheart deal with the billionaire. Under the deal, Epstein was sentenced to only a few months in a correctional facility. Once inside, he was able to use his wealth to buy himself a private cell. And more than that, he was able to get onto a work-release program that allowed him to leave prison, six days a week, for 12 hours.
Epstein’s story is disturbing, horrifying, and also fascinating. As hard as Filthy Rich tries to find clarity in all of this, the more murky things become. It doesn’t help matters that Epstein was found dead in jail in 2019 – a death that was either suicide or murder, depending on who you ask. For its part, Filthy Rich presents compelling explanations both ways – there’s plenty to support suicide, just as there’s plenty to support the murder theory. But there are no definitive answers. And there’s no justice.
It’s a theme repeated again and again. “There’s no justice in this,” one of the Epstein survivors states. Because as much as Epstein’s victims feared and hated him, they also held onto the hope that one day he would be brought to trial, and then to justice, spending the rest of his days in prison. Denied that opportunity, the survivors are overcome with a wealth of mixed emotions.
Filthy Rich does an excellent job of laying out all the details, painting a disturbing portrait of Epstein’s world, and not letting any of his acquaintances off the hook. Epstein’s longtime partner Ghislaine Maxwell comes off looking the worst of the bunch, as several victims claim she took part in the sexual abuse. Epstein’s lawyer Alan Derschowitz actually dared to sit down and be interviewed for the series, even though one of the victims, Virginia Roberts, has accused Derschowitz of abuse as well. Dershowitz flat-out denies it, going so far as to say, “I challenge you to ask Virginia Roberts to accuse me on camera,” at which point the series cuts directly to Roberts looking into the camera and then accusing the well-known lawyer.
Other figures who come off looking bad: Prince Andrew, who was accused of taking part in the abuse; Bill Clinton, who palled around with Epstein, but also claimed he had never visited Epstein’s island, even though several witnesses place him there; and Donald Trump, who was practically Epstein’s neighbor in Florida. To be clear: neither Clinton nor Trump are accused by anyone in the docuseries. One survivor even states that while she saw Clinton with Epstein several times, she never saw him do anything inappropriate. Still, the question remains: why did so many powerful people continue to hang around with Epstein even after the plea deal in Florida brought his activities to light?
From a filmmaking perspective, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich unfortunately falls into the same predictable traps as so many other docuseries do these days: lots of talking heads and lots of drone shots. But the series is also brief – running only four episodes. So many modern docuseries, especially of the true crime variety, seem to stretch on forever – McMillions could’ve been edited down into a two-hour movie; Tiger King didn’t need to be 7 episodes long.
By keeping things truncated, Bryant avoids dragging things out. That doesn’t stop the filmmaker from recycling certain interviews, or phrases from interviews, sometimes in the same episode. There are multiple occasions where a snippet of an interview we’ve already heard is distractingly played back to us again. There’s also an unfortunate reliance on cheap cliffhanger endings – episode 1 ends with a police raid in which a law enforcement officer says, “I couldn’t believe what we found in there!” right before the cut to black and end credits roll.
But the subject matter remains compelling, albeit in an often discomforting way. But for all the focus on Epstein and those around him, Filthy Rich is ultimately about his victims – all of whom are labeled survivors here, and for good reason. While they may never see Epstein bought to justice in the legal sense, they’ve bravely rebuilt their lives from the ground up.
There’s an ache that radiates off the screen whenever one of the survivors speak, and with it, a sense of the trauma Epstein inflicted. In one of the most emotionally devastating moments in the entire series, survivor Michelle Licata reflects on the happy kid she was until she fell under Epstein’s sway. “Before Epstein, I was…,” she says, and then pauses for an uncomfortably long time, before sobbing through the rest of the sentence: “I was something else.” That phrasing haunts me. “I was something else.” As if Epstein didn’t just change who she was as a person, but that he somehow took her very humanity away, and rendered her unrecognizable.
The final episode is devoted almost exclusively to the survivors and the way they’ve managed to go on, even after everything they’ve been through. There is hope there, underscored by shots of these women walking on sandy beaches bathed in bright sunshine. But there are always dark clouds waiting to blot out that brightness. Jeffrey Epstein is gone, but there are still obscenely wealthy people like him out there getting away with things we can’t even begin to dream of. As Virginia Roberts puts it at one point, “The monsters are still out there.”
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