Netflix’s ‘Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich’ Is Harrowing but Essential Viewing

Netflix’s four-part documentary about serial pedophile Jeffrey Epstein finally gives the victims a voice, while ‘Blackballed’ is a brilliant basketball doc about another disgraced Jewish billionaire

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Michelle Licata in "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich."
Michelle Licata in Netflix's "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich."Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

If the movies of Martin Scorsese have taught us anything, it’s that as long as you can handle the carb-heavy diet, endless trips to the dry cleaners and Frank Sinatra’s back catalog, crime most definitely does pay.

That’s why I’m convinced the first person who said “crime doesn’t pay” was actually misquoted. My own personal theory is that someone at the FBI misheard a penniless poet say “rhyme doesn’t pay” and, thus, the bureau’s fatuous maxim was born.

Anyone who truly believes that crime doesn’t pay should take a look at the final estate – $577 million – of Jeffrey Epstein, a man so monumentally sleazy that even Donald Trump tried to distance himself from him (but not before once calling him a “terrific guy”).

Of course, “disgraced” doesn’t come close to doing justice to the tattered reputation of the billionaire financier who hanged himself last August as he was set to spend the rest of his life behind bars for the sex trafficking of minors. Then again, “justice” and “Jeffrey Epstein” rarely did go in the same sentence. Two words that do? “Abuse” and “power.”

He's the subject of a new documentary on Netflix, “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” (out Wednesday), which manages to be both essential viewing yet also extremely difficult to watch at many points.

As I sat down to watch the four-part series, I felt as if I were being invited to dinner by the world’s worst cook: You know that what you’re about to digest has been made with the best of intentions, but you also know it’s going to be a deeply unpleasant experience and at some point you’ll feel like vomiting.

Jeffrey Epstein's 2017 picture in the New York State Sex Offender Registry.Credit: New York State Sex Offender Regi

There’s an unspoken question you ask yourself before watching any show: What do I hope to gain from this experience? That’s a tough one with a documentary like this, which is basically a lengthy description of unpunished depravity. Ultimately, though, my answer was this: To give Epstein’s victims something they had largely been denied in his lifetime – an audience.

The first thing to note about “Filthy Rich” is that if you’ve read any of the print exposés, there’s little here that feels revelatory about Epstein’s life and crimes. There’s no secret footage revealing what went on inside his New York townhouse, Palm Beach mansion or private island in the Caribbean; no enabler miraculously discovering a conscience and confessing; no smoking gun to connect famous faces with accusations of amorality.

So while this is a series primarily aimed at viewers who aren’t sure if Jeffrey Epstein was the one who managed the Beatles or the one who managed the money of the superrich, it does arrange the case against him in such microbial detail that even if you know the story, you’re still mortified by the sheer scale of the abuse.

It also asks hard questions about why then-State Attorney for Southern Florida Alexander Acosta agreed to a ridiculously lenient plea deal with Epstein in 2008 – the equivalent of charging Hannibal Lecter with shoplifting some fava beans and a nice Chianti after he’d just confessed to eating someone.

Attorney Brad Edwards explaining how Jeffrey Epstein's "molestation pyramid scheme" worked, in Netflix's "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich." Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

You’’ll learn far more than you ever wanted to about the alleged shape of Epstein’s penis (in fairness, that was new information!) and become far too familiar with his “molestation pyramid scheme,” where he would pay Florida schoolgirls $200 whenever they either gave him a “massage” or brought a friend along to do it – all under the watchful eye of his female assistants.

We also hear from police officers in Palm Beach who worked the original case diligently and journalists who covered the story over the years. There is one notable absentee from the latter group, though, that highlights how much of Epstein we’re going to be seeing over the next year: Miami Herald journalist Julie K. Brown’s reporting was widely seen as the catalyst that forced the legal system to belatedly take Epstein’s crimes seriously. So her absence here (barring one cameo shot) is presumably the result of her deal with HBO for Adam “The Big Short” McKay to dramatize her upcoming book on the subject. And if that’s not enough, Lifetime is set to release its own four-hour documentary, “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein,” this summer.

It will be fascinating to see if either can improve on this documentary’s big failing: its inability to get under the skin of a total snake like Epstein. Early on, journalist Vicky Ward – who penned the controversial 2003 Vanity Fair profile “The Talented Mr. Epstein” – calls him this “Gatsby-like figure of mystery in New York.” But four hours later, we still know next to nothing about Epstein the man/monster, other than that he was born in Coney Island in 1953 to a middle-class/lower-middle-class family, dropped out of college without graduating, succeeded in business by wielding a moral compass that was forever pointing the wrong way, and in the ’80s looked disturbingly like Derek Zoolander doing his “Blue Steel” look. And while the video recordings of legal depositions are horribly absorbing, the main thing we learn from them is that Epstein smirked a lot and claimed pretty much every constitional right other than the 19th Amendment.

And while he may have given generously to many Jewish causes over the years (including the National Council of Jewish Women), after watching “Filthy Rich,” the only thing we can say for certain that Epstein worshipped was himself.

Ultimately, it’s the survivors’ testimonies that give “Filthy Rich” its raw power. About 10 brave women detail their abuse at the hands of Epstein – including Maria Farmer, who first reported him to the FBI way back in 1996 after he abused her and her sister, Annie; Courtney Wild, a young kid from the wrong side of the tracks in West Palm Beach – a neighborhood most definitely not populated by millionaires – who introduced “40 to 60” other schoolgirls to Epstein over the years; and Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was trafficked by Epstein nearly 30 times before she was 18 and was famously photographed with Prince Andrew in 2002. She has offered credible proof that he abused her.

Of course, the perspiring prince and Epstein’s longtime girlfriend and alleged partner in crime, Ghislaine Maxwell, both deny all allegations of wrongdoing – the former in a now infamous TV interview that Florida journalist Jane Musgrave memorably describes here as “one of the worst mea culpas ever known to man.”

Epstein eventually served 13 months in the most open of prisons after pleading guilty to two charges of solicitation of prostitution, including one with a minor. This was thanks largely to the crack legal team he assembled, which, naturally, was the best money could buy. One should give a modicum of credit to Harvard Law School professor (and occasional Haaretz columnist) Alan Dershowitz for facing the music here and offering the rarest of perspectives from Team Epstein. (Giuffre has also accused Dershowitz of abusing her, an allegation he strongly denies.)

“If you want to be a defense attorney, you can’t be concerned about what people think of you,” Dershowitz says at one point in the documentary – which is great news for you, Alan, because by now most of the world thinks you’re a total &*$#.

At four hours, “Filthy Rich” is definitely an episode too long – I’m sure they could have saved at least 20 minutes by cutting those shots of survivors staring out to sea – and there’s a repetitive nature to the story that is sadly unavoidable. This, after all, was a sexual predator whose modus operandi went unchanged and unchecked for decades.

Sarah Ronsome, left, and Courtney Wild, two of the dozen or so survivors appearing in Netflix's "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich." Credit: Netflix

Yet while “Filthy Rich” is far from perfect and no doubt suffers from its desire to be first out of the gate in a competitive field – most noticeably its somewhat flimsy handling of the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s suicide – it’s still an important, damning documentary that underlines what we’ve always known: When you have obscene wealth, you really do get away with all kinds of obscene acts.

Guilty by association

Speaking of obscene acts and wealthy Jewish billionaires, an excellent new documentary is currently airing on Quibi about the scandal involving former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

That paragraph may have prompted a few questions in your head, which I will attempt to answer below.

1. The brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Quibi is a short-form video app that debuted in April. The name is an abbreviation of “quick bites,” but its underwhelming launch has caused some pundits to wonder whether it’s really short for “quixotic billions” ($1.75 billion and counting, allegedly).

2. Donald Sterling, né Donnie Tokowitz, was born in 1934 to Jewish immigrants in the hardscrabble LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Much like another famous Donald, he went on to become a real estate mogul who enjoyed emblazoning his name on all of his properties. In April 2014, though, his world came crashing down when he was recorded telling his ex-mistress, V. Stiviano: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” after she posted pictures of herself on Instagram with basketball great Magic Johnson.

Donald T. Sterling attending the Los Angeles Clippers playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, April 21, 2014.Credit: AFP

It soon emerged that this was not Sterling’s first time at the racist rodeo – not a great look anywhere, but especially not when 85 percent of your playing roster is black. As ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith puts it, “I felt like I was listening to a plantation owner.”

3. The documentary is called “Blackballed,” and it’s a 12-parter recounting how the Clippers’ players and black coach Doc Rivers reacted to the owner’s racist comments, and also how the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, reacted to such an explosive situation just months into his new job. And don’t worry if 12 episodes sounds like a big investment: Each installment is only about seven minutes long and flies by like Chris Paul zooming past an opponent.

4. Although it’s clearly a documentary about basketball and that “perennial terrible team” the Clippers – once labeled “the worst franchise in sports history” by Sports Illustrated – “Blackballed” is also about how black athletes’ attitudes have changed over the years; how they went from keeping mum in the ’90s (the Michael Jordan approach) to standing up – or even taking a knee – to social injustice in the 2010s.

This is a hugely rewarding documentary that gets the inside story from the players themselves and offers smart takes from basketball pundits. It’s also surprisingly funny in places, like when The Athletic journalist Jemele Hill asks, “Who crushes Magic Johnson? You have to hate, like, old folks, puppies and seals to crush Magic Johnson.”

And while I’m really not a fan of the “quick bites” approach, this story of one racist man, allegedly prone to statements like “I think that’s too much money for a white guy,” is ultimately too incredible to be spoiled by the format. This documentary alone was worth Quibi’s $7.99 monthly subscription fee – but please remind me to cancel before next month's becomes due.

Postscript: I did wonder how many people would have the stomach for such a disturbing show as “Filthy Rich,” fearing that its sordid, grueling details might deprive the survivors of the wide audience they so obviously deserve. Silly me: As of Saturday, the show is currently the most-watched show on Netflix in Israel.

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