Jeffrey Epstein was a free man, and a living one, when production began on the Netflix documentary Filthy Rich. Even after his arrest last year for the sex trafficking of young girls, the filmmaking team, headed by director Lisa Bryant, worked in total seclusion, in a locked room fitted with cameras.
This, after all, was the predator who had successfully greased his way out of retribution for over twenty years, using chilling tactics of bribery, intimidation and the best legal representation $600m-odd can buy. Were there a way to get the documentary killed even from a prison cell, he would undoubtedly have found it.
Epstein’s death, which remains a murky element, helps this series concentrate on the area where it can illuminate his grim case most potently: that is, on first-hand accounts from his victims, who at all times have a great deal more to say on the subject than he does, whether in recorded deposition (which is almost the only time we see him speaking) or from beyond the grave.
These women all came forward at different times – the first two, a figurative artist called Maria Farmer and her 16-year-old sister, Annie, contacted the FBI as early as 1996, after both were lured into his orbit and sexually abused.
That the authorities did nothing about these allegations for more than two decades is just the first sign in this staggering saga of Epstein’s power and influence fending off the arm of the law. By 2008, his accusers were legion, and yet still his guilty pleas on two puny charges meant prison time in name only, thanks to the notorious “sweetheart deal” cooked up between his lawyers and the US Attorney for Southern Florida, Alexander Acosta. Serving 13 out of his prescribed 18 months, Epstein got “work release” for 12 hours a day, six days a week – and barely gave his cell a backward glance.
The frustration and pain of his victims was compounded, as many of them discuss, by a life-ruining sense of guilt. Many were as young as 14 when they say they were confronted with his modus operandi: charmed into his vicinity by Ghislaine Maxwell, a non-participant here who denies all knowledge of being his chief procurer, and lured to a massage table in one or other of his half-dozen homes, where he eventually turned over and made them strip.
These were vulnerable children Epstein was able to bribe for their silence, and then to coax the next girls into his web, which became a kind of “molestation pyramid scheme”, to quote one investigator. His ability to winkle out their weaknesses and dazzle them with shows of generosity whisked away all powers of refusal. The first wave of charges crumbled because their complicity make them look like weaker witnesses than they truly were.
One of his lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, is in fact the only one of Epstein’s A-list cronies who consented to be interviewed for this. As he gnashes and obfuscates, it’s far from his finest hour. Unconvincingly denying the Acosta deal was any kind of behind-closed-doors conspiracy, he demands to hear from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who then makes allegations of her own against him.
She repeats, of course, her charges against Prince Andrew, to whom about ten minutes of the third episode are devoted, complete with agreement from everyone (except Dershowitz) that he came out from the Newsnight interview looking even more guilty than when he went in. And guiltier by the day: there’s an eye-witness from Epstein’s “paedophile island” – an IT guy called Steve Scully – who claims he remembers the 17-year-old Roberts topless by the pool with Andrew by her side.
Prince Andrew has vehemently denied all her claims, with Buckingham Palace saying: “It is emphatically denied that the Duke had any form of sexual contact or relationship with Virginia Roberts. Any claim to the contrary is false and without foundation.”
Scully claims he spotted Bill Clinton on the porch, too, though the ex-president has insisted he never once set foot there.
The fourth and most powerful episode brings all these women movingly together, from their various walks of life, to the steps of Manhattan’s Federal District Court, where they get the merest taste of justice from Epstein’s July 2019 bail hearing. This was denied, in a model ruling by the judge, Richard M Berman, before the maybe-suicide that has robbed them all of true closure. Several of the victims well up at being taken seriously by a judge at long last. But they’ve also forged a vigorous alliance, as survivors not just of Epstein, but of a legal process that for two decades put their stories of abuse unconscionably in the bin.