It’s unusual, perhaps, to be criticising a documentary for focusing too much on its subject, the person whose name is right there in the title – but then, there were a lot of unusual details about the life of Jeffrey Epstein. He was a billionaire, but nobody was too sure how he made his money. He was convicted of a serious sex crime, and given work release six days a week. And, most remarkably, a man who was on paper a glorified accountant was for some reason chumming around with the very highest echelons of society.
So the overriding thing about the Epstein case, from the very start, has been that it shamelessly begs further questions, not least regarding the seemingly charmed life Epstein enjoyed. But the issue with actually committing any of it to film (or print) is that if you want to try answering those questions, you need some solid proof, proof which will not always be forthcoming. When Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich recounts New York art bod Eileen Guggenheim steering a young woman straight in Epstein’s direction – was there anything innocent about that? Almost certainly not, but nobody can prove it.
This is the broader problem with the documentary – there’s plenty of dirt around, but beyond Epstein’s own crimes it has trouble pointing to anyone specific. There’s safer ground in the victims recounting institutional failures, like the FBI not acting , or Vanity Fair killing what would have been an expose back in the ’90s, or what the documentary isn’t shy about saying was a tipoff which came from inside the Palm Beach police department. Nobody expects much better from entrenched institutions like these, especially when it comes to the wealthy. Vanity Fair gets a disclaimer in the closing credits, but evidently they have not thought it wise to sue.
What’s also a problem with the laserlike focus on Epstein is that there’s a very limited amount of actual film of the man himself: most of it is him pleading the fifth, or a clip where he’s asked whether his penis is egg-shaped, a pertinent question in court but one which doesn’t match the documentary’s serious tone. Beyond that, the documentary is obliged to return again and again to the same small pool of still photos, most of which are used so often they start to seem like reaction images.
Filthy Rich is a lot more effective when it’s allowing Epstein’s victims to tell their stories, although this can seem a little redundant at first: their accounts of being groomed by Epstein, horrible as they are, usually play out in the same sort of way. And since Netflix is also paying these women to perform for them, it can stray into the voyeuristic, especially when they’re describing what happened in as lurid detail as possible.
The advantage of their actual testimony is that it illustrates just how tawdry Epstein’s crimes were – he was not a supervillain, he was a man who took advantage of vulnerable children. Of course, the show would by nature not want to minimise its subject matter by actually saying how squalid it all is, instead punctuating it with glossy location shots of sunny Palm Beach and Little St. James island, which gives it the air of some high-profile, jet-setting heist film rather than a greasy noncing ring.
Any actual claim to supervillainy comes from the links Epstein may or may not have had with prominent public figures – and that’s something the documentary doesn’t seem too keen on digging into. Even when Virginia Giuffre is specifying that she was lent out to politicians and businessmen, there are no names named. Obviously to do so would be risking libel charges, but still, Filthy Rich doesn’t even begin to explore Epstein’s high-profile connections until well over an hour in, with the exception of the now-notorious pictures of Epstein with Donald Trump.
Filthy Rich is very wary of even drawing that level of link. If it ever mentions someone by name, it will typically begin and end with ‘this person met Epstein, maybe’, never daring to do much more than suggest. The only prominent names who are actually accused of anything are those who have already been incontrovertibly linked to Epstein, and whose names are already mud: Ghislaine Maxwell (still on the run at the time of writing), Harvey Weinstein, Prince Andrew, and Alan Dershowitz (who’s one of the interviewees, denying everything in slightly more convincing fashion than the prince). It is only in the final episode, with maybe quarter of an hour of screentime left, that it is suggested that Epstein was part of a wider ring and had compromising photographs of his powerful friends – and the idea is dropped as quickly as it is raised.
Bluntly, there is nothing new here for anyone who followed the story in even the most cursory fashion when it first broke last year. (This was my concern when the documentary was announced.) So it’s particularly odd that each episode of Filthy Rich ends on a cliffhanger, which as a narrative hook is already an odd choice for a show which has dropped all four episodes at once. When TV turned out one episode a week, you needed to keep the audience salivating – less so if the next episode is on a five-second timer. This, too, seems like the creators whipping up the maximum amount of sizzle with the minimum amount of sausage. Or, if you prefer, stretching their subject over four hours without touching on anything too risky.
What about for those who aren’t familiar with the story, though? Tellingly, Filthy Rich’s coverage of the ‘sweetheart deal’ Epstein received at trial in 2008 doesn’t even mention then-Florida District Attorney Alexander Acosta’s assertion that he was told Epstein “belonged to intelligence”. This little detail was rather splashily included in pretty much every bit of startled, breathless coverage of his 2019 arrest. Granted, it’s hard to prove anything relating to the intelligence services, but a consistent theme through the whole documentary is the secrecy and the wall of silence that surrounded Epstein. As the documentary has itself been perfectly happy to infer things and let the viewer draw their own conclusions, it’s not hard to imagine why, exactly, Netflix might shy away from tempting the wrath of the intelligence services.
What will also seem a little fishy to even the most casual viewer is that when it covers Epstein’s death, it leads with two separate sources asserting that it really was suicide – only bringing up the evidence suggesting foul play after having repeatedly dismissed the ‘conspiracy theories’ swirling around the event. Unprovable conspiracy theory it may be, but the vast majority of the likely audience will believe, as a matter of fact, that Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself, and the documentary then bringing up evidence for this will not regain their trust.
As a documentary, Filthy Rich mostly finds itself fumbling about in a murky swamp, unwilling to peer below the surface and even handling what’s in plain sight with kid gloves and at arm’s length. It’s at its strongest when it allows the survivors to tell their stories – since in those sections, it actually has the people concerned on screen and speaking frankly. Make no mistake, these women are the victims of incredibly serious crimes, and deserve a chance to tell their stories – but ideally, would never have been placed in that situation in the first place. And the pretence that this kind of sexual abuse began and ended with Jeffrey Epstein does nothing to stop it happening again.
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Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich plays it very safe throughout, sticking rigidly to the most uncontroversial facts of the matter – and as such has nothing to distinguish it from any other reportage on the subject.
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