Here's what Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich gets right that so many true crime documentaries get wrong
Netflix's new series does the right thing by prioritising the survivors over the perpetrator, says Jo Berry
By: Jo Berry
Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing
Netflix’s hit four-part docu-series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich brings to life the stories that made newspaper headlines last year when financier Jeffrey Epstein died in prison while facing charges of sex trafficking.
Using footage of Epstein being interviewed for an earlier charge (and disdainfully refusing to answer questions) alongside comments from prosecutors, associates and investigators, plus film of Epstein’s homes (including his private island in the Caribbean), director Lisa Bryant’s documentary is a fascinating and horrifying look at how one man escaped justice for decades, possibly with the help of wealthy connections.
While the series isn’t perfect – in an ideal world it would have been illuminating to hear from Epstein’s society "friends" such as Ghislaine Maxwell, as well as from the staff of his homes who presumably feel they can’t come forward – there is one thing this documentary does that is very special. It gives Epstein’s victims – the survivors of his crimes – a voice.
Alicia Arden, Chauntae Davies, Maria and Annie Farmer, Michelle Licata, Sarah Ransome, Shawna Rivera, Virginia Roberts, Haley Robson, and Courtney Wild never got to face Epstein in court. They never got to stand in front of him and a judge and jury and detail the sexual abuse, rape, and sex trafficking that took place. They never got to see him sentenced for his crimes against them.
Filthy Rich gives them all a chance to tell their stories, and speak for those girls and women who have yet to come forward who were also Epstein’s victims. Bryant prioritises them, and lets them speak clearly by directing the camera on them and never distracting the viewer with the awkward re-enactments some documentary makers favour.
Of course, Jeffrey Epstein and his alleged crimes are the one thing that links these women, but Bryant wisely doesn’t make it all about him – after all, do we really want to spend four hours solely in the company of this horrendous man? It’s one of the pitfalls many true crime documentary series tumble into – focus on the perpetrator, be it Tiger King’s Joe Exotic or Confessions With A Killer’s Ted Bundy, and you are asking your audience to commit to spending hours of their time with some very unlikeable people.
It helps that Epstein was something of an enigma anyway, with business associates confirming in Filthy Rich that he lied or was vague about his past careers and where his money came from, and Bryant not spending too much time on the years before his alleged crimes. Until Epstein was arrested, many of us had never heard of him, so while the documentary may be about him, his presence doesn’t overshadow his victim’s testimonies as perhaps Michael Jackson’s did in the Leaving Neverland documentary. And unlike Jackson, there seems to be no one in Epstein’s life prepared to come forward to defend him, making the survivors’ testimonies even more powerful.
Prioritising the survivors over the perpetrator hopefully gives them some kind of catharsis, even if it can’t give them the justice they have sought for so long. They are given the chance to articulate their frustration at how Epstein avoided criminal charges for so many years – some of his accusers are talking about crimes they reported back in the 1990s – while police officers explain to us, and to them, the brick walls they came up against during their investigations.
With us all focused on the current pandemic, Epstein was all but forgotten just months after his death in August last year. But this documentary allows the survivors’ stories to live on, it reminds us all of what Epstein was accused of, and if nothing else it helps to find him guilty in the court of public opinion.
Most importantly of all for these brave women who have come forward, Filthy Rich serves to remind us, the police and everyone else investigating Jeffrey Epstein that he did not commit these crimes alone in a room without anyone else’s knowledge. There were other people involved, those who aided him, those who met these young girls, those who looked the other way.
We can only hope that one day in the future this documentary can have a sequel, detailing how the other people in Epstein’s story have been found and brought to justice for their involvement in his horrendous crimes.