After Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest in 2019, filmmaker Lisa Bryant and members of her crew chartered a boat to Little Saint James, his infamous private so-called “Pedophile Island” in the Caribbean, to take a look at this corner of the disgraced financier’s fiefdom.
“We got about 20 yards from the dock and all of a sudden, four ATVs came barreling out from both sides of the island with guns,” Bryant told Esquire. And that was a little intimidating. We did the right thing and left.”
The gun-toting ATV riders were just the most vivid illustration of Epstein’s might and menace. While Bryant’s team created their new four-part docuseries, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, which premiers on Netflix Wednesday, they worked in a locked room that was fitted with cameras. It contained a safe to hold sensitive materials, and they used an encrypted computer system to guard against hackers.
“There was a concern that he might try to shut us down by hacking and we’d lose our material,” Bryant said.
It was a justified fear. Epstein was still a free man when production began, and the convicted sex offender was infamous for using both carrots and sticks to silence victims and thwart the media’s efforts to cover his misdeeds. He reportedly made a sizable donation to one New York Times’ reporter’s favorite causes, and allegedly left a bullet and the severed head of a cat outside the homes of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter when one of his reporters was investigating abuse allegations against Epstein.
But Epstein’s ability to silence victims and the media collapsed with his downfall, which made the alleged serial rapist one of the biggest news stories of 2019. The multi-millionaire financier and socialite former friend of two presidents became a Me Too-era villain on a scale possibly matched only by his pal Harvey Weinstein. The scandal brought down a cabinet member and became a symbol of the corrosive power of wealth and influence within some of the world’s most elite circles.
Filthy Rich examines the Epstein saga largely from the perspective of the late financier’s alleged victims. Featured survivors include sisters Maria and Annie Farmer, both of whom say they were abused by Epstein, and whose stories were cut from Vanity Fair’s 2003 profile of him. (Carter has denied that he was intimidated into changing the article, and says the abuse allegations didn’t meet the magazine’s publication standards.) There are women who grew up in working-class areas near Epstein’s lavish Palm Beach home, some of whom were already survivors of traumas that made them especially vulnerable to the millionaire and his enablers. And there’s Virginia Roberts Giuffre, perhaps the best known of Epstein’s victims, who has accused him of trafficking her to his coterie of rich and powerful friends, including famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Britain’s Prince Andrew. (Both men deny having sex with Giuffre.)
“I think time had finally passed for them,” says Bryant of the victim’s willingness to come forward. “Things were starting to be talked about, and the Me Too movement helped empower them to feel like coming forward.”
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But survivors are not the only people who proved willing to participate. Dershowitz, who’s recently served as an attorney for one-time Epstein friend Donald Trump, describes having a “close academic friendship” with the financier in interviews for the series. Former Bear Stearns executive Michael Tannenbaum describes his regret at choosing to overlook the fact that a young Epstein lied about being a college graduate on his resume, instead of derailing his nascent career and potentially preventing all of the suffering that would come.
The documentary also features Epstein’s former employee Steve Scully, who for years maintained the secretive millionaire’s private telecommunications network on Little Saint James. He says that he saw Epstein and his guests cavorting with young girls. “You tell yourself that you didn’t know for sure,” Scully says in the series. “But that’s just all rationalization.” When a colleague asked why he worked for Epstein, Scully says he replied, “‘I don’t know… the money.’”
The series examines Epstein’s legal travails, including the now-infamous deal struck with future labor secretary Alexander Acosta that found him dodging the potential for a life sentence and instead serving 13 months in jail, with 12 hours of work release six days a week. “Acosta can talk until he’s blue in the face about what they had and what they couldn’t do,” says producer Joe Berlinger, producer of documentaries including Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the Paradise Lost trilogy, “but it was an unprecedented, unheard of sweetheart deal.”
And then there are the circumstances around Epstein’s death. It was ruled a suicide by the medical examiner, but the dumbfounding series of missteps that allowed the high-security inmate to hang himself—guards sleeping on the job, broken cameras, accidentally deleted security tapes—has fueled a popular conspiracy theory proposing that the financier was murdered.
“We just wanted to present both sides of the story,” says Bryant, “because obviously someone like Jeffrey Epstein, [facing] being locked in a federal prison for the rest of his life—it makes perfect sense that he would take his own life, right? On the other hand, with all of the powerful people in his orbit, we know there was a possible blackmail scheme. He had video cameras in all of his homes and, allegedly, he had video of powerful people who-knows-what.”
Epstein’s death not only deepens the many mysteries surrounding him, from the origins of his fortune to the accusations against powerful men in his orbit, but it prevented his victims from being able to face him in court and potentially see justice done. “In some sense, justice will never be served to them,” says Bryant. “I think justice to them would be bringing down the co-conspirators and the enablers that could still be out there abusing other women.”
And it seems that some of the co-conspirators and enablers could be worried. After the trailer for Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich was released, “we have gotten a multitude of threatening letters putting us on notice about defamation from powerful people connected to the case,” said Berlinger. “Obviously getting it at the 12th hour is not going to stop us from airing the show, but it’s interesting that the trailer has provoked a lot of concern from powerful people.”
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