As soon as you think you’ve gotten used to all the ways the world can go wrong, the obscenely rich find a new way to stupefy you. This was pretty much how it went down last year when financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on federal charges for the sex trafficking of minors, as we around the world watched a web of lies and deception come undone, as the #MeToo movement gained more steam.
Epstein’s molestation pyramid scheme (three words which should never be beside each other) was a zeitgeist-defining crisis, its twists and turns faithfully documented. It’s hard to imagine anyone being in the dark about the subject, but considering the terrible wealth of problems happening around the world, it’s feasible that one simply did not give the issue due attention. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is a documentary on one of the vilest men of our time, meant for those who perhaps couldn’t stomach reading about Epstein’s vile exploits while the news cycle was churning the story out.
It is an accomplishment that this documentary is able to do what it does, considering the fact that we know how the story ends. Epstein dies, and a million memes about Epstein not killing himself are born. It’s an amusing meme, one whose tone of tin foil hat hysteria matches the absurdity of the events that preceded it and their illuminati proportions. And yet Filthy Rich manages to surprise. It does this deftly, setting up the image that Epstein aims to project—a wealthy, international man of mystery—through an anecdote of a Vanity Fair profile that, had Epstein and his lawyers not threatened and manipulated the magazine, could’ve published testimonies from two of his victims.
And then the documentary spends the rest of its running time tearing it all apart. An island nicknamed Pedophile Island. Underage girls flown in from France. Buying off the FBI. It’s good nonfiction, but even the organising of facts and real anecdotes needs good pacing, which Filthy Rich has a lot of.
The four part docu rightfully places its attention first, and for a majority of the series, on the women that Epstein trafficked, making this as much a story of survivorship as it is a story of power. It takes time to unpack the extreme class difference between Epstein’s El Brillo Way neighbourhood in Palm Beach, and the nearby low-income neighbourhoods from which many of the girls he exploited came from. Epstein’s friends are cut zero slack—the likes of Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew are some of the many names dropped to demonstrate Epstein’s proximity to power, and the dubious company he kept as a financier. It’s a shame that Epstein’s main accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, could not be reached, but her absence speaks volumes. The blatant flaws of the justice and incarceration system are put on blast. To the credit of Filthy Rich, it makes these effortful attempts to call the conditions that allow Jeffrey Epstein to thrive, a systemic problem.
But the docu is kind of a redundant project. While the documentary is a harrowing, suspenseful watch that gives a Netflix-sized platform to women whose testimonies were ignored for years and not given nearly enough time in court, it is more emotionally taxing than insightful. In a world where there is just so much bedlam happening at any given moment, it is hard to give this film the emotional bandwidth required to stomach its story. Maybe that’s the fault of its release date.
Plus, Filthy Rich doesn’t really offer new information other than what was bombarded upon us through the news cycle’s unrelenting reportage. I believe any investigative piece should be able to strike a balance between educational and cinematic. Filthy Rich doesn’t do that. It tells us things that we already know, through cinematic beats we’re familiar with if we’ve consumed literally any true crime media. It’s painful to watch—and not always in a good way—survivors reopen old wounds. That sort of research is always a difficult undertaking, and I’m certain director Lisa Bryant handled the stories of her subjects with as much delicacy and care as she could. But the vindication of these women could have been given better treatment in this narrative, instead of having their healing treated as a neat conclusion to what was essentially a true crime drama.
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This is a documentary for viewers who wants to educate themselves, need a refresher, or just never got around to reading the articles and think pieces they left as open tabs on their browsers. But even then Filthy Rich could’ve stepped it up in that aspect. Part of what makes the story of Epstein so compelling is the tracing of disparate threads to the places of power that impact the world today, and have impacted the world for a long time. Alexander Acosta, who approved a plea deal to basically soften Epstein’s sentence from 2007-2008, would eventually come to be nominated Labor Secretary by Donald Trump. Alan Dershowitz, one of Epstein’s lawyers, turns out to also be connected with Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and O.J. Simpson.
Here is an investigative piece that could’ve used some more thread-tracing, more undone spiderwebs—not just for dramatic effect, but also to drive home the fact that the Epstein issue is a social issue.
You know that thing many documentaries do that’s like a supercut of a bunch of news anchors all saying connected things? Imagine this. Clips of the Occupy movement and protestors chanting “we are the 99 percent!” as they march through Wall Street, the locus of big money and home to many of Epstein’s old associates. Reports on the Panama Papers, which Epstein is also connected to. Clips of the FBI doing stuff. More clips: the trials and arrest of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinsten, the latter a friend of Epstein. The election of Donald Trump, the 2017 Women’s March, the Stormy Daniels scandal. From there, zoom out to reveal Epstein’s face as a mosaic of screens. Or cut to black then come in with an anecdote by a survivor. This might seem a little hammy, but Filthy Rich already does a lot of work exposing networks of power and the big names therein.
In any case, I can only recommend watching Filthy Rich as much as I recommend reading up on the story, whether it’s the James Patterson book from which this movie was roughly adapted, or articles from a trusted news outlet. I suppose it’s just a matter of whichever medium you prefer. Either way, it won’t hurt less.
You can watch ‘Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich’ on Netflix.