“There’s no strength in being quiet. Your strength is in your voice.”
Those words come from Chauntae Davies, a survivor of sex crimes perpetrated by Jeffrey Epstein, speaking as one of the featured figures in Lifetime’s two-night, four-hour documentary Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.
Davies clearly makes the case here for why there’s no harm in Surviving Jeffrey Epstein arriving less than three months after Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, another four-hour documentary (as in, four hours without commercial padding) about the wealthy financier and his decades of sexual assaults and sex trafficking — also with Davies among its central heroines. Honoring and giving a platform to survivors, amplifying voices that for years were silenced or marginalized, is an absolute good that goes well beyond any qualitative evaluation of either series.
Having both series out there and available, empowering so many survivors who remain young women, is in all ways important. But if you watched Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, are there still reasons to watch Surviving Jeffrey Epstein? If you’re fascinated by the story, should you pick one or the other or both? That’s a more complicated question.
Especially on much of its first night, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s Lifetime doc is close to interchangeable with Filthy Rich. The focus is primarily on survivors of Epstein’s cycles of assault in Florida, using probably two-thirds of the same interview subjects — survivors and their crusading attorneys — for a comparable narrative establishing the power Epstein wielded and how he used it to prey on young women from lower-income parts of Palm Beach, detailing his predatory patterns and tracing the tragic backstories that made some of the survivors particularly vulnerable. Filthy Rich featured more survivors from this particular period of Epstein’s criminality and more figures from the Florida legal community, making for a fuller exploration of the repugnant 2008 plea deal orchestrated by former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta under shady circumstances.
If Surviving Jeffrey Epstein has an advantage in that first night, it’s in better fleshing out the so-called “sexual pyramid scheme” with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell at the top. Sundberg and Stern are far better sourced in Epstein’s Manhattan backyard — they directed last year’s The Preppy Murder as well — and, as a result, they’re able to explore his targeting of aspiring models, as well as the contributions of the four named co-conspirators from that 2008 plea deal. In many ways, seeing how complicated and tiered an infrastructure Epstein’s operation was built around only adds to the horror; each recruiter, each intermediary introduces a new layer of betrayal and, in some cases, victimization.
It’s in the second night that Surviving Jeffrey Epstein begins to really differentiate itself from Filthy Rich, eschewing a lot of the tawdry details that the Netflix doc dedicated time to — and that, if we’re being honest, some viewers will want and be disappointed not to have. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein offers no speculation at all on the nature of Epstein’s death, and it’s weakly sourced on the salacious details coming from Epstein’s private island. The filmmakers avoid any direct implications about any of the rich and powerful people under Epstein’s sway other than Prince Andrew, accused but not on-camera, and Alan Dershowitz, who probably needs to learn to say “No” to some of these documentaries, because he once again fails to do himself any favors with anything he says.
Sundberg and Stern were deep into editing in July when Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested on sex trafficking and perjury charges, and while I can’t say what material was scrapped from the original cut to make it possible, the documentary becomes much more focused on Maxwell as a result. Maxwell’s incarceration has opened another door for the survivors to get legal justice — an opportunity thwarted by Epstein’s death — and there’s a greater willingness on all parts here to delve into Maxwell’s psychology and complicity. This brings new, nightmarish nuance to a story that could otherwise be built around Epstein as a smirking bogeyman. Those Manhattan connections, including several former friends and acquaintances of Maxwell’s, make for a more rounded perspective.
Surviving Jeffrey Epstein also boasts a clearer call to action — especially as it relates to survivors’ desire to push for legislation to change statute of limitation laws when it comes to sexual abuse of minors. (Lawyers and psychologists offer insight into the failure of current laws to understand why victims often remain silent for so long). The call to action is the best justification for why this documentary, even with its changing focus and the ongoing nature of Maxwell’s proceedings, was rushed to air for what has now become a semi-arbitrary date timed to the first anniversary of Epstein’s death.
The rush — the documentary contains interviews and news reports from things that happened just weeks ago — results in some real narrative unevenness that probably would have been smoothed out if a premiere could have been pushed to September. (Maxwell is introduced on the first night as an accomplice and then the second night as more of a demonstrable perpetrator.) Heck, by pushing this to September, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein might have become Surviving Ghislaine Maxwell.
Some of the production’s liabilities wouldn’t have been correctable. Like Filthy Rich, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein suffers from a limited visual scope, so the same childhood pictures of the survivors are utilized over and over again, as is the notorious shot of Epstein, Maxwell, Donald Trump and Melania Trump (an association Sundberg and Stern can’t capitalize much on, though at least they now have Trump’s “I wish her well” press conference answer to drive home that relationship).
Ultimately, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein is, like Filthy Rich, an admirable tribute to survivors and an opportunity for some measure of catharsis. It’s also constrained by legal considerations when it comes to approaching Epstein’s network — and by being unable to anticipate what will or won’t come from Maxwell’s current legal situation. That all means that the next four-hour Epstein documentary should be heading our way next year.
Airs Sunday, August 9, and Monday, August 10, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.