Television

Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein Series Is a Different Kind of #MeToo Documentary

Filthy Rich traces a web of complicity, but no one has yet revealed the full picture.

Jeffrey Epstein, smiling, seated with Chauntae Davies at an outdoor bistro table.
Jeffrey Epstein with Chauntae Davies in a clip from Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. Netflix

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Netflix’s new four-part documentary, isn’t really about Jeffrey Epstein. It’s about the lives he left behind, many of them marred by trauma and grief, reeling from residual feelings of guilt and complicity, and scarred by a justice system that conspired against them. What villains there were are dead or off screen or (thanks to the deal brokered by U.S. Attorney and future Trump Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta) immune. In their place are witnesses who didn’t always do what they should have, journalists whose reporting got buried, minors who recruited other minors while they were victimized themselves. There are some newsworthy bits here and there: Epstein’s former IT contractor Steve Scully says he once saw Bill Clinton on Epstein’s island, although he says no other guests were there at the time, and Clinton continues to deny he was ever there or that he ever knew anything about Epstein’s crimes. (“This was a lie the first time it was told, and it isn’t true today, no matter how many times it’s repeated,” Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña told the New York Post.) But Filthy Rich is more interested in untangling webs of complicity than in unearthing bombshells. “The truth is, I was there for six years,” Scully, who finally quit working for Epstein, has said of his time there. “I really started seeing things weren’t normal in the first year. … I wear shame and guilt,” he added. “Because you know what? When you allow money to dictate your moral consciousness, you’ve lost all idea of moral consciousness. It’s not about the money. It can’t be.”

Focusing on the effects of Epstein’s crimes means that the mystery of who he was goes unsolved. With the possible exception of Alan Dershowitz, who reaffirms his admiration for Epstein’s intellect, no one seemed to hold the once-popular Epstein in high enough esteem to agonize much over his downfall. This sets the series apart from the rest of the recent wave of documentaries about alleged abuse by powerful men. Whereas Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland, and the new Russell Simmons film On the Record can’t help but engage with the stardom whose nastier facets the documentaries expose, Filthy Rich doesn’t grapple with its subject’s cultural importance. In this sense, the documentary is aptly named. Epstein didn’t have fans or iconicity. He had money.

There’s an ugly flatness to this that Filthy Rich can’t illuminate or relieve or even, at a very basic level, explain. Questions about Epstein’s wealth—crucial mysteries still, especially given the circumstances of his death—remain. The documentary features some interviews with old business associates eager to repair their reputations, and blackmail resurfaces every so often as the apparent practice underwriting Epstein’s existence, but none of this coheres into anything like a reliable narrative. The image of Epstein that emerges from all these interviews remains similarly murky. Sometimes described as so ultra-charismatic, manipulative, and persuasive that experienced financiers were powerless in his presence, Epstein is at other times narrated as a colorless lump—dependent on his companion Ghislaine Maxwell, the charismatic one, to attract people on his behalf. (Maxwell, meanwhile, claims she “had no involvement in or knowledge of Epstein’s alleged misconduct.”)

Where the documentary shines is in its portraits of the survivors. (These are sometimes literal: The last installment of the documentary has one of Epstein’s earlier targets, Maria Farmer, an artist, presenting portraits she’s painted of each of the women.) This has been a complex case to follow ever since November 2018, when Julie K. Brown brought Epstein back to national prominence with her indefatigable reporting for the Miami Herald. It has only gotten more complicated since, as more women have come forward, and as more stories have emerged. There are enough victims at this point that it’s hard to keep them all straight. The documentary, by its nature, dispenses with that difficulty: There’s no confusing Michelle Licata and Maria Farmer once you’ve seen them on camera.

The survivors’ stories stack up, reinforcing one another and building out a larger narrative about collective damage. The women of this documentary are hard to look away from, and so are contemporary photographs of the girls when they were first lured to Epstein’s home with promises of small amounts of money for giving him a massage. “I felt so used,” Licata says, trying to explain the horror and confusion she felt after he turned over on the massage table and everything escalated. “Like it was … I was just like this dirty person. Before Epstein, I was—I was—I was—something else,” she says, breaking down. It’s one thing to talk about power differentials; it’s quite another to watch Shawna Rivera, then a resident of the much poorer West Palm Beach (which Filthy Rich does a good job differentiating from the cushy alcove of Palm Beach where Epstein ran his operation), quietly describe the ways her life had been traumatic even prior to Epstein’s appearance in it. She was 14 when a friend asked her to come with her to meet Jeffrey Epstein. “I remember thinking he was kind of rude,” she says of her first impression. Her friend then tells her they both have to take their clothes off. When Rivera, confused, finally does, her friend says, “I’m going to go,” and leaves her alone with Epstein.

These are hard stories to hear, and what makes them even tougher to digest is how many of these poor girls kept going back. But the series does good work contextualizing a dynamic it’s extremely difficult for outsiders to grasp. Filthy Rich gives Rivera room to explain why she kept going for three or four years before interlacing the women’s accounts with expert testimony, so when Kathryn Stamoulis, an educational psychologist, explains how the grooming process involves targeting girls with a need the predator can exploit, you’ve already seen this in action. “When you’re pairing a teenage girl with a brilliant narcissistic billionaire, their adolescent brain was not prepared to understand or react to what was happening,” Stamoulis says. That might be easy to intellectually accept, but there’s no forgetting it once you’ve seen survivors trying to explain how they got these disorienting instructions and why they gave in.

This is all prologue, in a way, to the documentary’s boldest approach to a difficult subject. Epstein’s operation has been described by several people as a “sexual pyramid scheme,” meaning that he and his adult procurers got girls to bring other girls who brought other girls. I don’t know if this is the part of the story that led filmmaker Barry Avrich to cancel the documentary he had in the works about Epstein, saying that the subject had become too “distasteful.” But it is distasteful. When Rivera describes being left alone in that room by her friend who’d begged her to come with her, you don’t feel kindly toward the friend. It took courage, therefore, for Haley Robson—who says she was raped at 15 by an adult and brought to Epstein at 16—to explain how she (along with others) came to play that role in Epstein’s scheme. She brought some two dozen friends to Epstein for money. Robson is blunt: “I probably recruited maybe 24 girls,” she says. “I would take them to the room. Then I would walk out. Sometimes I would wait by the pool.” Robson talks about the guilt she’s felt over the years and how long it took her to understand that—as a 16-year-old whom Epstein also tried to grope—she was a victim too.

Details of the police investigations are riveting and worth watching if you have no familiarity with the case. Michael Reiter, the former police chief for the Palm Beach Police Department, narrates the process through which he and Palm Beach detective Joseph Recarey started uncovering the extent of Epstein’s network of victims. Reiter’s testimony is intercut with footage or tape recordings of Recarey’s interviews with young girls. The documentary does a decent job sketching out the anthropology of Epstein’s world: The author James Patterson, an executive producer for Filthy Rich, says he was essentially neighbors with Epstein in Palm Beach and speaks to Epstein’s reputation for extraordinary wealth. And journalists including Vicky Ward, who was working on a story on Epstein for Vanity Fair in 2003, talk about how Epstein tried to intimidate her and her editors out of publishing the story. The makers of Filthy Rich, too, say they have received threats from Epstein’s allies. Director Lisa Bryant told Esquire that, when she and some of her crew tried to visit Epstein’s island, “We got about 20 yards from the dock and all of a sudden, four ATVs came barreling out from both sides of the island with guns.” They turned around.

Filthy Rich is a good enough starting point if you know little about Jeffrey Epstein, but it doesn’t crack anything open. The best thing the documentary does is let you hear from the survivors directly. If you know anything at all about the Epstein case, you know why giving them the spotlight matters: The survivors were famously cheated out of any participation at all in the disgraceful legal negotiations that resulted in Epstein getting the “sweetheart deal” his team reached with Acosta, which gave Epstein and all his co-conspirators immunity from federal prosecution. That has ramifications that may explain some oddities in Filthy Rich: While Maxwell gets ample screen time as one of the film’s main villains, the other adult women who have been accused of being Epstein’s procurers are hardly mentioned.

There are still holes here, in other words. And in those spaces might reside the story that still needs to be revealed. After all, that Filthy Rich didn’t grapple with Epstein’s cultural importance doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. The man’s influence wasn’t limited to vulnerable teenagers and the powerful politicians and financiers over whom he exerted peculiar control. He had money, but many of the people to whom he’s been connected, and who hardly appear here, have other forms of influence, too.