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Every so often, Netflix will release a behind-the-scenes documentary to accompany a new show. (Check out the one about Unorthodox. It’s illuminating!)
And I would pay a small premium to get just that kind of behind-the-scenes documentary about the legal vetting process that went into Netflix’s upcoming Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, a four-part doc that’s eye-opening at certain points and self-protectively myopic at others. Viewers will come to Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich with a lot of different needs, expectations or requirements, and those may play a large role in whether or not the result satisfies.
Air date: May 27, 2020
Directed by Lisa Bryant, with Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) among executive producers, Filthy Rich is, primarily, the latest post-#MeToo documentary giving a platform to survivors of abuse. Like Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland, Filthy Rich places sexual abuse within the context of power discrepancy, elevating and prioritizing voices that the legal system failed or marginalized.
In some ways, Jeffrey Epstein is the “easiest” of the high-profile targets for these documentaries. R. Kelly was alive, free and still collecting paychecks when Surviving R. Kelly came out — maybe not as popular as 15 years earlier, but definitely still possessing defenders and systemic advantages. Michael Jackson was dead and unable to respond to the allegations made in Finding Neverland, but anybody who has written about that limited series, or even casually mentioned it on social media, knows that his advocates remain a vocal lot.
Nobody’s going to take Jeffrey Epstein’s side. The crimes committed by the late financier — explaining his level of wealth, much less its origins, is something Filthy Rich attempts with understandably limited success — are grotesque and despicable, and he’s dead, so they can be discussed with impunity and candor. There’s no reason for anybody to say “Nah, he didn’t do it” or “Nah, it’s all been taken out of context” or anything. And nobody in Filthy Rich attempts to say that.
But Epstein’s crimes weren’t exclusively of the one-on-one victim-perpetrator variety. He was accused of trafficking minors for sex to some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, which both helped lead to a disgraceful plea bargain in 2008 and spawn countless conspiracy theories upon his death/suicide/murder in 2019.
People wanting more details on the pieces of Epstein’s crimes that didn’t exclusively relate to Epstein are likely to come away from Filthy Rich frustrated — and that’s where I’m curious about the vetting used to determine who could be accused of what additional crimes, what accusations required denials and disclaimers and what ultimately couldn’t be touched.
Why are there myriad specific accusations against Epstein “companion” Ghislaine Maxwell, but a group of women accused in nebulous terms of procurement are never discussed in real detail and don’t even provide statements? Why is only one former Epstein employee here from the notorious “Pedophile Island” (or other properties where servants were plentiful, but documentary participation is absent) and what governed what he was able to discuss? What allowed Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew and Harvey Weinstein to be named as representative high-rollers in Epstein’s sphere, but only in very limited contexts and with limited implications of criminality?
I’m not in any way accusing the filmmakers of a dereliction of duty; I’m pointing out the accommodations that had to be made in order to tell this story at this moment, and the limitations to what Filthy Rich is able to do as a docuseries. (A 2010 deposition in which Epstein repeatedly sneers, smirks and takes the Fifth over and over again is just about the only time his voice can be heard.)
Viewers looking for direct, on-camera confrontations with anybody tied to Epstein have to settle for Alan Dershowitz, willing to be a representative portrait of squirmy defiance here as he always has been, across so many tawdry cases. Dershowitz, and accusations leveled against him, are the breathless centerpiece of a fourth episode that is the closest to what more salaciously-minded viewers will be seeking. That episode covers post-#MeToo charges, delves into how those charges dovetail with Epstein’s documentable ties to the likes of Weinstein/Clinton/Trump and, yes, posits some complications to the official ruling that Epstein killed himself.
Yet if you want grand revelations, conclusive “Gotcha!” name-calling or an all-encompassing narrative for what would have been at stake if Epstein had ever gone to trial, you’re out of luck. The series instead ends with the survivors, on a surprisingly lovely and emotional note.
Those survivors are really everything here and the first two episodes are composed largely of interviews and personal recollections from more than a half-dozen Epstein accusers. Elements of their stories are harrowingly similar, others are heartbreakingly unique and it’s all difficult to watch and listen to. Women like Maria Farmer, Virginia Giuffre and Sarah Ransome, speaking from several different continents and from several different places in their psychological recovery, are the heroes here — complicated heroes who are working through trauma and, in some cases, regret over their own complicity in what several subjects dub “a sexual pyramid scheme.”
Most of these survivors never got to face Epstein in court — a couple of them spoke at his 2019 bail hearing — and never will, so this is as close as they can come. Getting any of them in front of former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta or any of the other attorneys responsible for that 2008 plea bargain was more, for logical reasons, than the filmmakers could do. Most of the involved attorneys issue feeble statements or play no role in the documentary, with Dershowitz again the exception because he has never been ashamed to make unironic pronouncements like, “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t think we made a very good deal. He was pretty upset with us.”
Bryant resists the need for reenactments, but struggles to fill the documentary’s visual space. There’s an over-reliance on showing certain pictures of these young women; at first, such images of smiling innocence are effectively contrasted with the survivors’ memories, but eventually it becomes a lazy editing tic. That’s still better than the blatant overuse, in the second and third episodes, of the exact same establishing shots of Palm Beach courthouses and police facilities. And it’s to nobody’s benefit that Filthy Rich utilizes the same visual representation of sliding up and down a timeline to clarify non-linear storytelling as was featured in The Last Dance.
Do I think there’s a different version of Filthy Rich that could have been made in five or 10 years, with more sources, stronger journalism and a conclusion shaped by genuine answers rather than iron-is-hot immediacy, Emmy deadlines and Lifetime’s looming Surviving Jeffrey Epstein? Probably. And it still can be made. Just go into Filthy Rich knowing what it’s able to do very well, and what it can’t do.
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)
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