In the matter of Jeffrey Epstein, two elements of the story are appalling: his incessant abuse of young women and girls, and the ease of his evasion of any punishment for years.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (new on Netflix from Wednesday) is a four-part docuseries that can, really, only deal with one of those two elements. It’s an important series because it gives voice to some of his victims. In the tangled story of the Epstein case, they were until now collateral damage.
It is in the second, truly blurry part of the story that the series is frustratingly imprecise. All we are left with is the glum assumption that the rich and well-connected are untouchable. The “how” and the “why” of what transpired in the Epstein case are left unanswered.
Directed by Lisa Bryant (who began work on this before Epstein died in jail last year), the series is, through several episodes – mainly the first – an essential part of the post-#MeToo narrative. It is a vehicle for survivors to talk, candidly and often with heart-scalding anguish about how they came into Epstein’s orbit and what exactly happened to them. They are of course only a few of the possibly hundreds of victims. Like Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland, this series places sexual abuse within the circumstance of power dynamics, providing a platform to those who were demeaned or ignored by the U.S. legal system.
At the start, we see footage of Epstein giving a deposition in 2010. He smirks and look vaguely annoyed as he’s asked whether he’s ever been found guilty of various crimes. He “pleads the fifth,” refusing to answer. That’s pretty much all we hear from the man himself.
Then the narrative shifts to 2003 and to Vicky Ward, who was writing a story for Vanity Fair magazine about this “Gatsby-like figure of mystery” named Epstein. It was to be a “society” piece about an ultrarich man. Then, Ward says, she was put in touch with painter Maria Farmer who, with her teenage sister Annie, had been pulled into the circle around Epstein and his partner Ghislaine Maxwell, after Maria graduated from art school.
After Annie told Maria she’d been abused by Epstein, they contacted the police, who passed them on to the the FBI, to no avail. What Vicky Ward recalls is that, as her story became more than a piece about a “Gatsby-like” figure, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter was spooked. Epstein himself made sinister threats to Ward on the phone. Any mention of women accusing Epstein disappeared from the story. Carter, in a statement the Netflix series highlights, claims now that Ward’s story, “simply did not meet our legal threshold.”
From there the series concentrates on Palm Beach, Fla., where, according to one lawyer, Epstein “created a sexual pyramid scheme.” Teenage girls would be invited to his home to give him a massage for $200. Then they would be paid to find other girls.
It is heartbreaking to hear the victims talk now about what happened. The first victim that local police became aware of was 14 years old. The stories told here would disturb the stone-hearted.
It is when Epstein is finally indicted that the narrative becomes hazy, almost impossibly, implausibly so. He got a sweetheart deal and moved on. The series continues, in later episodes, probing the sources of Epstein’s wealth, which are murky; the activities on his private island and at his New York home; and his connections to other powerful men. But as it goes beyond the events in Florida, there are fewer people willing to talk and fewer facts to be nailed down.
In the end, one is left with the resonance of a startling revelation at the beginning. In 1996, Maria Farmer called the FBI. As she explains: “When I called the FBI agent, I laid it out very specifically. I said, ‘I’m reporting these people: Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.’ I told them everything and I could tell that he believed me, so I really believed that he was going to take care of this. And then, we just actually did not hear back.”
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Brexit (Crave/HBO), a blistering take on the referendum that brought the Leave campaign a narrow victory in Britain’s vote on EU membership. The movie isn’t fiction – it’s about the real figures pulling off the upset victory. Mainly, it’s a lethal farce that becomes chilling. It focuses on Dominic Cummings, who called the tune in the Leave campaign, and he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s brilliant as the neurotic, arrogant geek who, it turns out, knew how to manipulate gullible voters. The story connects directly with Influence, that powerful doc seen recently on CBC and, of course, the real Cummings is now the controversial chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Watch right to the closing credits.
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