How Is Jeffrey Epstein Still So Elusive?

A new four-part Netflix documentary strains to handle a subject who’s always out of reach.

Chauntae Davies and Jeffrey Epstein in 'Filthy Rich' (Netflix)

During his life, Jeffrey Epstein was likened to Jay Gatsby and Tom Ripley, to a eugenicist supervillain and James Bond, and yet the rare glimpses provided of him in the new Netflix documentary series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich showcase someone far more mundane. Choleric and bored, a hulked-up accountant type in a blue button-down and a plastic watch, he rolls his eyes through a taped deposition and pleads the Fifth to almost everything he’s asked, bar his full name and list of residences. “I would like to answer that question; I really would,” he tells an attorney who’s asked him whether a friend once sent him three 12-year-old girls as a birthday gift. But on the advice of his counsel, he’s limited to the same form response, the same generic non-denial denial, no matter how monstrous the charge. Withholding information might be his greatest trick of all.

This propensity made him at once an irresistible subject for inquiry and an impossible one. With a few notable exceptions, the record of both the criminal-justice system and the media when it comes to Epstein is one of failure. “Who in the world is Jeffrey Epstein?” a puffy 2002 New York magazine profile asked. In it, the most illuminating line strangely came from Donald Trump, who noted that Epstein “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” A year later, Vicky Ward’s Vanity Fair story on Epstein probed the mystery of his wealth, his obsessive privacy, and his curious courting of Nobel Prize winners—although allegations Ward uncovered about Epstein molesting an employee and her underage sister were cut before publication. Criminal cases against Epstein at the federal and state level similarly fizzled (a 53-page 2007 indictment against him involving more than three dozen alleged victims led to a sweetheart deal in which he served just 13 months in a private wing of a Florida county jail).

Virginia Roberts Giuffre (Netflix)

For a long time, Epstein seemed untouchable. And even after a 2018 investigation by the Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown led to renewed prosecutorial interest in the financier and to his being taken into custody in New York, he remained unknowable. The meme sparked by his death by hanging last year in a prison cell—“Epstein didn’t kill himself”—points to the murkiness of even his demise. Salacious questions abound: Did Epstein routinely provide politicians, royals, and public figures with trafficked women, some of them underage, to compile a dossier of blackmail material? Possibly, according both to one of his accusers, who claims his Virgin Islands home was wired with cameras, and to heavy hints made by Epstein himself. Was he a transhumanist who wanted his head and penis to be frozen after his death? Apparently. How did he build his fortune? Despite substantial efforts at untangling his wealth, no one really knows.

Filthy Rich is the first of a wave of Epstein works headed for television. Brown, the Miami Herald reporter, is writing a book that’s simultaneously being adapted into an HBO series; Lifetime and Sony also have Epstein shows in progress. Based in part on a 2017 book about Epstein co-written by the crime novelist James Patterson, and directed by Lisa Bryant, Filthy Rich is notable mostly because it’s airing on Netflix, which virtually assures it the kind of mass audience and exposure that might shake more information loose; on Thursday, it was No. 1 on Netflix’s most-watched list in the United States. Over four episodes, there’s almost nothing in the way of fresh information, other than a new eyewitness account implicating Prince Andrew, again, in sexual misbehavior facilitated by Epstein and his then-partner, Ghislaine Maxwell. (Prince Andrew has repeatedly denied Virginia Roberts Giuffre’s allegations that she was coerced into having sex with him when she was 17.) Instead, the documentary focuses on the women who say they survived abuse at Epstein’s hands. Again and again, these women describe being lured into Epstein’s circle and subjected to sexual assaults, some as adults, and some while they were still in middle school.

There’s indisputable value in giving voice to people who were rendered voiceless for most of their adult lives, and in letting them explain how the systems that were supposed to protect them repeatedly failed. But Filthy Rich also suffers from a lack of clarity, hovering over its primary subject rather than targeting its punches. The series is eminently watchable, and enraging. But it comes no closer to unraveling Epstein than any previous reportorial attempts have managed. This matters not because Epstein himself is so worthy of forensic analysis, but because so many figures in his circle continue to evade attention. “The monsters are still out there, and they’re still abusing other people,” Roberts Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers, tells the camera at the end of the final episode. “Why they have not been named or shamed yet is beyond me.” Why indeed? And why not here, in a show that seems capable of doing so?

Presumably, the ongoing reason for tiptoeing around Epstein’s co-conspirators is the same one that protected him for much of his life, which is the lopsided legal sway that the rich and powerful can claim over the unprivileged, and even over documentarians making series for massive entertainment platforms. Of all the allegations resurfaced by Filthy Rich, one I can’t stop thinking about is how Florida prosecutors (led by the future secretary of labor Alex Acosta) responded when asked why they’d cut Epstein such a bafflingly generous deal. The sheer might of Epstein’s “army of legal superstars,” Acosta implied in a 2011 letter defending the deal, was unconquerable. Epstein had amassed such influential lawyers, who were so intent on digging into their opponents, that any deal at all should be interpreted as a win. In other words, justice has no chance when it’s pitted against the unscrupulous force of big-name criminal defense attorneys.

Shawna Rivera (Netflix)

Variations of this equation seemed to protect Epstein for much of his life, Filthy Rich suggests. Surround yourself with powerful enough people and make life difficult enough for anyone who threatens you, and you can insulate yourself from any consequences. The second episode dips into Epstein’s origins in Coney Island—how he briefly attended Cooper Union without graduating and, while teaching at the Dalton School, charmed his way into a job at Bear Stearns. By the time it was discovered that Epstein had lied on his résumé, he was dating his boss’s daughter. Later, he went to work for Towers Financial Corporation, whose former CEO, Steven Hoffenberg, pops up in a comically honest interview. Epstein “definitely appealed to us,” Hoffenberg says, “because we were running a Ponzi scheme and … he could deliver results in this criminal enterprise.” Epstein became Hoffenberg’s literal partner in malfeasance, “doing the crimes alongside me daily.”

Bryant splices the somewhat foggy story of Epstein’s path from private-school teacher to billionaire money manager with accounts of how Epstein founded a kind of pyramid scheme of his own. Instead of capital, it involved underage girls, and the horror and brilliance of it was that it turned those girls themselves into accomplices. At the top were Epstein and his five most trusted agents: Ghislaine Maxwell, Lesley Groff, Sarah Kellen, Nadia Marcinkova, and Adriana Ross. (Apart from Maxwell, the series ignores the others, although their stories seem worthy of investigation—Epstein reportedly described Marcinkova as his “sex slave” and employed her as a participant in his abuse before funding her training as a pilot. Kellen is now married to the NASCAR driver Brian Vickers. All four women were insulated from prosecution by the original plea deal Epstein agreed to in 2008.)

Beneath these women were the girls. The ones interviewed in Filthy Rich came mostly from the other side of Palm Beach, Florida, from disadvantaged backgrounds and traumatic upbringings, introduced by other girls who got paid for every newbie they brought to Epstein’s home for a “massage.” They were 14, 15, 16 years old. They would come to define their lives in distinct periods—before Epstein, and after. Courtney Wild describes to Bryant how she was a straight-A student who played the trumpet when she met the financier. Her mother had struggled with addiction, and Wild had occasionally been homeless. Over three or four years, she estimates that she brought Epstein between 40 and 60 new girls, earning $200 each time, money she badly needed. “I felt like he was my lifeline,” she says in the interview.

Courtney Wild (Netflix)

The element that best distinguishes Filthy Rich from other Epstein interrogations is its sense of the insidiousness with which Epstein victimized girls and women, and then persuaded them in turn to victimize others. The series makes space for the adult women to talk about how they grapple with feelings of crushing guilt, in addition to being traumatized. (In one scene from a taped interview, officers at the Palm Beach Police Department tell a horrified girl who was victimized that she’s just confessed to a felony.) The motivations of Maxwell, who allegedly enabled and participated in some of the assaults (she denies all allegations), are harder to parse, especially as she’s disappeared from the public sphere; still, her social status makes it more difficult to imagine that she was as vulnerable as the underprivileged girls whom Epstein routinely targeted.

Filthy Rich doesn’t dig into these kinds of questions, or interview people who might be inclined to. It lays out a handful of facts about Epstein, and then encourages people who encountered him—survivors, detectives, reporters, lawyers—to detail the parts they played. That none of these people really knew him (with the possible exception of the Epstein lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose outbursts of self-defense explain why no one else on Epstein’s side agreed to be interviewed) makes Filthy Rich less a thorough exploration of Jeffrey Epstein than a view of him filtered through the women who survived him. To give voice to people who were silenced both by Epstein and by the criminal-justice system is a worthy undertaking, even if viewers can’t help wanting more rigorous analysis of the accountability of others in Epstein’s circle. Still, the fact that the series is on Netflix guarantees that more attention will be paid to the people who benefited substantially from their connections with Epstein while he was alive, and who shouldn’t get to enjoy the luxury of silence after his death.