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).
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.