Despite accusations of pedophilia and sex trafficking, stories about Jeffrey Epstein often focus on descriptions of his private islands, jets, mansions, and famous friends, rather than the fact that, for years, these privileges allowed Epstein to prey on children in plain sight. Over the span of three decades, Epstein allegedly sexually assaulted and trafficked hundreds of women and girls, many of whom claim they were also routinely assaulted by his powerful friends, with no real consequences, protected by his wealth, connections to other powerful men, and a broken system that too often sees underage victims as complicit in their own abuse. The documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, concerns itself largely with the lurid details of unfathomable cruelty and the trappings of Epstein’s wealth, almost entirely forgetting the inequalities and power imbalances that protected Epstein and everyone who helped him avoid prosecution for so long.
The four-part series, currently streaming on Netflix, opens with a 2012 deposition of Epstein in which an attorney repeatedly asks Epstein if he’s ever “solicited a minor for prostitution,” the only crime of which he’s ever been convicted. The charge itself is maddening. The idea that children can consent to their own sexual abuse as long as they’re being paid is a reminder of how carelessly the American legal system treats victims of sexual assault and trafficking, especially if those victims are poor. But the narrative of the documentary, co-produced by crime thriller author James Patterson, avoids any real interrogation of the structures that prevent wealthy men from being held accountable for sexual assault.
Instead, Filthy Rich appears consistently dazzled by Epstein’s money; its opening credits feature a bridge made of cash as a stand-in for Flagler Memorial Bridge, which connects wealthy Palm Beach to the less-wealthy mainland. And from the introduction of Epstein by a Vanity Fair journalist, the documentary falls into the all-too-common trap of painting a monster as “charming” and “mysterious,” meant to remind the viewer that Epstein didn’t “look” like an abuser, as if being a wealthy man with powerful friends were some sort of inoculation against reprehensible behavior.
As his victims begin to tell their stories of abuse throughout the first two episodes, a pattern emerges: teenaged girls with troubled home lives from disadvantaged backgrounds say they were pulled into a system in which Epstein allegedly invited them to his Palm Beach mansion to give “massages” during which he would masturbate before coercing the girls, who usually had no financial resources or network of trusted adults to confide in, to recruit their friends for more abuse. The word “molestation” isn’t mentioned until a victim says it in Episode 2. Before that, the terminology is “sexual massage,” as if even the documentary agrees that children are capable of participating in their own abuse when money is involved.
More than half of the four hours devoted to Epstein’s crimes focus on testimonials from victims, back-to-back, presented with no commentary from experts on child abuse or the ways in which police, politicians, and the court system protect abusers. “If you have enough money, you can buy your way into any society,” Carl Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald says in an Episode 1 interview. But the exact process by which an outsider would be able to move into a community and almost immediately begin abusing teenage girls remains a mystery. Michael Rieter, former Palm Beach police chief briefly mentions the allegations that set the 2005 investigation into Epstein in motion, but the narrative quickly gets sidetracked by videotapes of teenagers describing their abuse.
Each of Filthy Rich’s four episodes follows a pattern: the narrative poses the question “How was Jeffrey Epstein allowed to get away with his alleged abuses for so long?” but seems to get too distracted by his wealth to explore answers. Instead of interviews with experts who might analyze the ways in which men like Epstein use their resources to create gilded bubbles where laws do not apply, the audience gets asides from novelist James Patterson, who claims to be a former neighbor, explaining the value of Epstein’s property in lush shots of valuable real estate in Palm Beach, New York City, New Mexico, France, and the private island Epstein owned. Photographs of Epstein standing next to Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are often invoked as if to prove that Epstein was connected, but the storytelling fails to make any conclusive connections as to how those friendships helped protect him from punishment despite police and lawyers collecting ample evidence from many victims with credible, corroborating accounts. Over and over, the idea of “money” and “power” is reiterated with no real exploration of the processes by which wealth helps buy permission to abuse power.
The documentary also ignores glaring connections between Epstein’s friends and the legacy of silence around the sexual abuse of women and girls. For instance, in interviews, Epstein’s friend and attorney Alan Dershowitz is allowed to deny the allegation that he also sexually abused Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre. Yet there’s no mention of the fact that Dershowitz’s book included a list of cases in which allegations of rape were declared false and that he once wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he argued that the age of reasonable consent should be lowered to 15, one year younger than Giuffre was when she says she was recruited to be abused by Epstein and his powerful friends. Victoria’s Secret CEO Les Wexner is also painted as a victim of Epstein’s, despite artist and Epstein accuser Maria Farmer’s claims that she was essentially held hostage by armed guards on Wexner’s Ohio compound and needed phone permission from Wexner’s wife Abigail in order to leave the estate’s guest house, indicating that Wexner and his wife knew what was happening in their own home and ignored and enabled it.
Victims also talk about the alleged role of Epstein’s longtime partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, in both luring victims to Epstein’s mansions and sexually abusing them. But other than a brief discussion of her father, Maxwell’s connections to the rich and powerful, including Prince Andrew, aren’t interrogated. And though Maxwell appears smiling next to Epstein in photograph after photograph over the course of the documentary, she remains framed as more of an Epstein accessory rather than an accomplice who might have used important connections with world leaders in order to cover up his, and her own, alleged crimes.
Ignoring these details is to ignore the idea that Epstein’s alleged actions weren’t just permitted by powerful acquaintances looking the other way but actually endorsed by other wealthy men impervious to punishment who at the very least saw nothing wrong with the scores of girls who seemed to surround Epstein wherever he went. The closest exploration the film does of the system that allegedly allowed Epstein to freely traffic girls from Florida to New York, the Virgin Islands, and London, among other places, is its indictment against Alexander Acosta, the former Department of Labor Secretary under Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney who arranged a lenient, backroom plea deal for Epstein in 2005. While the documentary notes that Acosta was later forced to resign in 2019 after dozens of Epstein’s victims’ stories finally came to light and Epstein was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges, the documentary fails to interrogate the fact that Acosta couldn’t have orchestrated a deal of that magnitude alone. What judge allowed it? What laws made it possible? Viewers are left to answer those questions on their own because just as quickly as it hints at real, possibly provable corruption, the series gets sidetracked by more the salacious conspiracy theories that surrounded Epstein’s apparent death by suicide in prison.
“Jeffrey Epstein is the ultimate story of the abuse of power and money,” Vicky Ward says in a Vanity Fair article that she claims would have exposed his abuses but was killed by the magazine. And perhaps it is, but by ignoring the ways in which other powerful, wealthy people enabled Epstein, the documentary fails to tell that story, opting instead for a lurid and superficial overview straight out of a James Patterson thriller. Epstein’s victims, who tell their stories in heartbreaking detail, deserve more than further exploitation in service of true crime content.