One unforeseen outcome of the post-#MeToo era is the arrival of a somewhat unfortunate new genre — documentaries about sexual abuse. With four hours of emotionally raw and sensitively edited interviews, Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland” is the undisputed knockout of the genre. The film dropped a bomb onto the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and anyone who witnessed it will never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again (and in some cases, not at all). Unfortunately, “Leaving Neverland” raised the bar so high for such a delicate and complex subject matter that any further entries in the genre are bound to fall flat.
The only one to come close, not only for the breadth of information but for expertly maneuvering the particular complexities of sexual abuse in the black community, was the Lifetime series “Surviving R. Kelly.” Unfortunately for Netflix, “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” doesn’t even come close either.
While the late billionaire sex offender wasn’t one of the great pop artists of his time, he was still a notorious prominent figure with ties to many powerful men. His abuse was methodical, followed strictly ingrained patterns, and was left unchecked for decades as he leveraged money and proximity to power to get away with assaulting scores of underage girls. Though “Filthy Rich” features interviews with many of Epstein’s victims, the haphazard writing spreads itself too thin for any true heroines to emerge. It’s not that their stories aren’t horrific or memorable, but the series lacks enough structure for any concrete characters to emerge. Ultimately, the shoddy storytelling does a great disservice to the women so bravely sharing their trauma on camera.
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“Filthy Rich” somehow manages to spreads itself too thin while also offering very little in the way of new information. After years of an unofficial media blackout on the well-connected financier, the Epstein trail was covered in great depth last year when he was arrested for child sex trafficking in Florida. The series gets into the weeds of Epstein’s various brushes with the law in an attempt to discover how he eluded justice for so long (the first allegation appeared in 1996), but it’s nothing that can’t be learned from his Wikipedia page.
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The three-episode series charts his beginnings as an ambitious stock broker at Bear Stearns in the 1980s, nabbing a fairly candid interview with his former boss, Steven Hoffenberg. The former owner of “The New York Post” pled guilty to orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme in 1995, and he has since claimed Epstein was an unofficial co-conspirator. Therefore, take it with a grain of salt when he says Epstein “was able to goad and manipulate people with extreme methods.”
“Filthy Rich” does illuminate a lesser known element of Epstein’s story, though to questionable ends. The series trots out a confusing speculation that Epstein had a sexual relationship with his former client, billionaire Les Wexner. This information is lobbed into the nebulous series by way of one deposition interview, with little beyond rumor and hearsay to back it up. Wexner was the chairman of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, and Epstein is said to have used the prospect of a modeling career to lure his victims in the early days.
During the deposition, Epstein is asked about his alleged sexual relationship with Wexner, after which he promptly ends the interview. The issue not only feels out of place, but designed to cast Epstein in an even more negative light. The interviewer, whom we never see, asks the questions in a way that feels similar, both in its accusatory tone and obvious intention to make Epstein uncomfortable, to an earlier line of questioning about the shape of Epstein’s penis. With no real conclusion or purpose, throwing in the possibility of a same sex relationship feels exploitative at best and homophobic at worst.
Directed by Lisa Bryant, “Filthy Rich” showcases an impressive number of survivors of Epstein’s abuse. Bryant clearly did her diligence in tracking down his victims, and the interviews she got clearly show her ability to make them comfortable enough to open up. But the interviews are used too sporadically throughout the series, and most of their stories are eerily similar. Certain subjects don’t appear until later on, and others disappear after the first episode. “Leaving Neverland” was so powerful in part because of its laser focus on two survivors, and their ability to excavate and communicate the effects the abuse had on the deepest parts of their psyches. With too much time and too little to say, “Filthy Rich” squanders the opportunity to do the same.
“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” premiered on Netflix on May 27.