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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

'It's outrageous': inside an infuriating Netflix series on Jeffrey Epstein

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich synthesizes legal information with first-person testimony of the billionaire’s abuse and bought immunity into a shocking watch
It’s difficult to watch Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, a four-hour Netflix series on the now-deceased convicted sex offender without a choking sense of outrage. How many girls had to suffer to get attention? How perversely twisted is the American justice system that a Gatsby-esque billionaire, friends with such powerful figures as Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Ehud Barack and Donald Trump, a longstanding donor to Harvard and MIT, could buy his way out of an almost certain life sentence for child sex abuse and trafficking?

Filthy Rich arrives, of course, less than a year after Epstein, 66, died, officially by suicide, in a New York jail last August. “There’s no justice in this,” Shawna Rivera, speaking publicly for the first time about Epstein’s alleged abuse starting when she was 14, says in the final episode. “There was just so much more to be said that will never be said.”

There is, however, much to be learned from the sordid, winding, thwarted path to Epstein’s eventual arrest on sex trafficking charges in July 2019. Filthy Rich doesn’t so much break new ground as synthesize the abundance of information with the visceral impact of first-person testimony on Epstein’s crimes – stories of predation, self-doubt and shame by numerous survivors betrayed by the justice system supposed to protect them.

Epstein’s decades-long legal saga is “the biggest example I’ve ever seen of somebody using their money and influence to thwart reporting on the subject and to work out an outrageous deal,” Joe Berlinger, an executive producer, told the Guardian.

Production on Filthy Rich began before Epstein became a household name – before his death, before his shock arrest, before a 2018 Pulitzer-winning investigation by the Miami Times-Herald into the sweetheart plea deal negotiated by federal prosecutors to keep Epstein out of prison. “The level of incompetence and back-door dealing that allowed him to get off – no one on this production thought he would ever be arrested during the making of the show,” said Berlinger, who first began work on an Epstein project in spring 2018, after he received a copy of mystery novelist James Patterson’s 2016 true crime book on the reclusive billionaire (and neighbor in Palm Beach).

The book “infuriated me”, Berlinger said, especially since, in 2018, “people were afraid to tell this story.”

Convincing women to speak on the record “was hard”, director Lisa Bryant said. “Some people wouldn’t talk at all, some numbers were wrong, some decided they just weren’t ever going to talk, for various reasons. Some hadn’t even told their parents about it.” The case of Epstein was never a he-said, she-said situation; to quote the retired Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter in the Herald’s original story: “This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ – and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story.”

But Epstein’s intimidation factor was strong, and many of the survivors, their justice thwarted by the plea deal and Epstein’s subsequent immunity, had moved on with their lives. “Yes, there was a pattern that he had, but each person’s experience with that and how they handled it is different,” said Bryant. “This is their story to tell, their narrative. We wanted this to be told through their eyes.”

The series revolves around the various experiences of the survivors, dating back to at least 1996, when the painter Maria Farmer and her teenage sister, Annie, contacted the FBI to allege molestation by Epstein and his ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. It went nowhere. Years later, in 2005, Palm Beach police launched an investigation into an alleged sex ring run out of Epstein’s beachside mansion, in which Epstein and Maxwell allegedly coerced high-school girls – most of them around 14, in vulnerable circumstances and needing money – into sex acts under the pretense of a “massage” for $200. Maxwell has denied any involvement. The alleged crimes expanded even further, as favorites were allegedly trafficked to rich and powerful friends for parties at Epstein’s $77m Upper East Side mansion in New York, at a London townhouse, and on Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean.

Some survivors featured in the series are speaking on camera for the first time; others, such as Virginia Giuffre, have been advocating for justice for years. Giuffre alleges in and out of the documentary that she was forced to have sex with Prince Andrew, who has denied the allegations and queried the veracity of a photo that exists of him with his arm around her, with a smiling Maxwell in the background. Virginia Giuffre denies she was 18 at the time of the photo; she says she was 17.

Given witness testimony in the series by a former Epstein employee who alleges he saw the prince engaged in poolside “foreplay” with a topless Giuffre on Epstein’s island, Andrew’s defense and lack of cooperation with prosecutors reads even more shabbily here. Andrew says he has “no recollection” of meeting Giuffre.

The show stokes justifiable outrage through each survivor’s account, retracing how the Palm Beach police department’s investigation was bumped up to the FBI, and was then derailed by a “non-prosecution agreement” the Herald called “the deal of a lifetime.” Signed in 2008, the deal – brokered by state attorney and later Trump labor secretary Alex Acosta and Epstein’s all-star team of lawyers, including OJ Simpson defender Alan Dershowitz (the only Epstein acolyte to attempt a defense in the series) – was controversially sealed and kept private from the accusers. It offered Epstein and named and unnamed co-conspirators immunity from federal criminal charges; instead, he pleaded guilty to two prostitution charges in state court, and served 11 of 13 months in Palm Beach jail, out six days a week on “work release”.

“He was still seeing girls, he was still making money, he was still conducting business – I mean, it’s just outrageous,” said Berlinger of Epstein’s “incarceration”. Epstein’s elusion of justice for another decade demonstrated how the American criminal justice system “was built for money and power and political gain”, said Bryant. “And we see that over and over again in this case.”

The series also addresses, but does not endorse, conspiracy theories on the cause of Epstein’s death; the medical examiner ruled a suicide by hanging, though an outside expert hired by Epstein’s brother raised unsubstantiated doubts, citing an unusual neck fracture. “I think it’s up for debate, and for people to look at the evidence both ways and make their own decisions,” said Bryant.

“There was nothing that we turned up that would definitively support the idea that he was murdered,” said Berlinger, “but we certainly felt [the theories] should be touched upon.” Personally, Berlinger said: “I do believe it was suicide.”

Epstein’s death denied survivors their true day in court, though several did speak at a posthumous hearing. There remains the possibility of prosecuting those linked to Epstein: perhaps Maxwell, whose whereabouts remain unknown and who recently sued Epstein’s estate – the fund supposed to compensate victims – for her legal fees. “I firmly believe and hope that the survivors will get that money,” said Bryant, and that statutes of limitations are reconsidered given greater understanding of childhood sexual trauma, the length and difficulty of processing enough to speak publicly.

For the survivors, said Berlinger, “the ultimate closure would be for everyone who enabled this sick lifestyle and everyone who enabled a wealthy white person with power and influence to have a different standard of justice to also be held to account.”

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is now available on Netflix
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