'Filthy Rich' director talks Jeffrey Epstein's 'molestation pyramid scheme,' relationships with Trump and Clinton

·10 min read

As Netflix viewers have discovered in the weeks since its release, the four-part series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an infuriating but urgent viewing experience — a comprehensive detailing of how the enigmatic financial powerbroker orchestrated a “molestation pyramid scheme” that went unchecked for decades because of his extreme wealth and connections.

It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of the victims who come forward, most of whom were underage and from disadvantaged backgrounds when they were molested, assaulted or raped by Epstein after being lured into his house under the guise of being paid to give him a massage. And it’s absolutely rage-inducing to examine the circumstances that let Epstein continue his reign of sexual abuse for an additional 12 years after he was first indicted in 2007, then given a “sweetheart deal” plea agreement and a slap-on-the-wrist prison sentence. Epstein died by an apparent suicide after he was finally arrested again in 2019.

“It’s a heavy watch for sure, but our goals were to expose how justice in the legal system was not carried out in the past. And this is a chance to tell people exactly who he was, what he was, how he operated, how many people may have known about it and remained silent out of fear and or even culpability,” Filthy Rich director Lisa Bryant tells Yahoo Entertainment in a recent interview. “We really wanted to dig deep and give a bigger picture for people who really didn’t know much about him and tell it through the eyes of the survivors of his abuse and the key players who tried to bring him down and have been silenced for so long.”

The miniseries is loosely based on the 2016 book Filthy Rich: A Powerful Billionaire, the Sex Scandal that Undid Him by popular crime novelist James Patterson (the Alex Cross series), released long before Epstein made headlines worldwide following his arrest last July. “He was disappointed, as a world’s bestselling author, that people seemed to not be paying much attention,” says Bryant, who began production on Filthy Rich nine months before Epstein’s 2019 takedown. “And the press is to blame a little bit in itself for not being more outraged when things happened back then.”

Patterson, who appears in the series, was a neighbor of Epstein in Palm Beach, Fla., where the financier and sex offender routinely lured high school girls to his mansion. He commonly preyed on girls from the low-income or depressed neighborhoods of West Palm Beach, then enlisted several of them to become recruiters for him, creating what one psychologist in the film calls a “sexual pyramid scheme.”

Palm Beach police began investigating Epstein in 2005, and in 2008 the FBI case ultimately brought against him accused him of sexually assaulting 36 girls (some as young as 14). It looked like Epstein was on the brink of a long and severe prison sentence — until closed-door meetings between prosecutors (led by then-U.S. Florida District Attorney Alex Acosta) and Epstein’s pricey attorneys led to a shocking reversal. Epstein struck a plea deal in which he was found guilty of only two crimes — soliciting a prostitute and procuring an underage girl for prostitution — and served only 13 months in a white-collar jail that he could leave on a near-daily basis for work release.

“I think that the high-powered defense team did a very good job — and that’s their job — to try to tear down the credibility of these… children, really, they were underage girls. And I think that is a travesty, that they were called liars and prostitutes and ripped apart,” says Bryant.

The filmmaker takes adamant exception with the victims being labeled sex workers by the court. “They are not prostitutes, let’s clarify that,” she says. “These were underage girls who were manipulated and groomed by this appalling monster who was a serial sex abuser and ran an international sex-trafficking ring. So the word ‘prostitute’ shouldn’t be in the vocabulary of someone underage. They cannot be held accountable to the standards of an adult and make those kinds of decisions.”

Bryant spoke to dozens of survivors for the documentary, many of whom appear on camera to share their horror stories. “They were fearful. One of the women we interviewed early on wanted to be in silhouette, because she was afraid for her life,” she says. “I’m really proud of each and every one of them. Trauma is something that doesn’t just go away. They’re each dealing with it in their own way. They were emotional interviews, they’re in a way re-living that. But they’ve been silenced for so long, they wanted to [speak]. I think it was cathartic for them.”

NEW YORK CITY, NY - MARCH 15: Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell attend de Grisogono Sponsors The 2005 Wall Street Concert Series Benefitting Wall Street Rising, with a Performance by Rod Stewart at Cipriani Wall Street on March 15, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell photographed March 15, 2005 in New York City. (Photo: Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

The documentary crew, which took extra security precautions like encrypted communication during production, attempted to interview Epstein on several occasions. They also tried tracking down Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime close associate who allegedly oversaw much of the sex offender’s bidding and whom many of the survivors insist be held accountable. “We actually did speak with one of her sisters, and emailed with another, and they don’t want any part of this, and have distanced themselves as well. And they aren’t gonna offer up any information about where their sister may be hiding. Nobody really knows where she is. There have been other friends and other acquaintances who we’ve talked to who have been in touch with her,” Bryant says. “Ghislaine Maxwell, by all accounts, feels she’s gonna be OK in the end — that the non-prosecution agreement [as part of Epstein’s plea deal] from 2008 is gonna protect her. And that’s something that the attorneys for the survivors are fighting so hard to get overturned to make things easier to hopefully bring the co-conspirators to trial.”

Filthy Rich also looks at two of the more media-salacious relationships Epstein had over the course of his life with U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Epstein frequented Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, and the two were known to be friends. (One of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Giuffre — who in the series accuses Epstein’s prominent legal adviser Alan Dershowitz of having sex with her multiple times when she was a teen — was first recruited by Maxwell at the resort.) Trump acknowledged Epstein’s preference for young females in a 2002 New York Magazine profile: “I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with,” the future president said. “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side." Their relationship reportedly soured in 2004 over a bidding war for a $40 million mansion.

Jeffrey Epstein with Alan Dershowitz. (Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)
Jeffrey Epstein with Alan Dershowitz. (Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Epstein attended multiple political fundraisers with Clinton (one even with Trump in attendance), and in 2002 flew the former president and actors Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker to Africa to tour HIV/AIDS project sites. According to flight logs, Clinton flew on Epstein’s private jet 27 times to at least a dozen international locations for humanitarian causes after his presidency. Most controversially, though, is the question of whether Clinton visited Epstein’s private Little St. James Island in the Virgin Islands, nicknamed “Pedophile Island” for Epstein’s routine abuse and trafficking of minors. A spokesperson for Clinton as well as the Secret Service has said Clinton never made the trek, but two of the series’ interviewees, a technician and Giuffre, insist he was there. “I remember having dinner with Clinton,” Giuffre said in Filthy Rich. “I never saw him do anything improper. I wish he would just come clean about [it].”

From left, American real estate developer Donald Trump and his girlfriend (and future wife), former model Melania Knauss, financier (and future convicted sex offender) Jeffrey Epstein, and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell pose together at the Mar-a-Lago club, Palm Beach, Florida, February 12, 2000. (Photo by Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)
Donald Trump with his girlfriend (and future wife) Melania Knauss, financier (and future convicted sex offender) Jeffrey Epstein and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell pose together at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. on Feb. 12, 2000. (Photo: Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)

“I think the story really is the ultimate story of abuse of wealth and power,” Bryant says when asked about Epstein’s relationships with the presidents and how they’re portrayed in the series.

“Our officials really have to do their jobs and not give the wealthy a free pass. I think it shows that the American system is broken and was built for political power and gain. And I think we saw that over and over again in his story over the years. I hope that this film is an opportunity to set change in motion and create more awareness of what’s happening right in plain sight. Really, awareness, accountability and change is what needs to happen. And brave survivors that come forward with their stories need to be respected and listened to.”

While the first three episodes of the miniseries are particularly harrowing for their depictions of the sexual abuse of minors, the fourth and final installment sees Epstein face comeuppance — and the victims finding some small measure of redemption — when he is finally arrested in 2019 for the sex trafficking of minors in New York and Florida. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell nearly two months later, and though his death was officially ruled a suicide, conspiracy theories abound about the cause of death, with some of the more outlandish ones implicating Bill and Hillary Clinton. Filthy Rich briefly digs into them with a few grains of salt.

“As a documentary you have to be very careful because you have to have proof to tell anything, so that was something we dealt with, especially after his arrest and death… Unless you have concrete proof, it’s very hard to tell those things and legally vet them. You can’t throw allegations around, certainly not in a journalistic documentary,” Bryant says. There are also theories about which of Epstein’s rich, powerful and famous friends may have also been guilty of sexual abuse (Prince Andrew, Duke of York, for one, resigned from his royal duties over allegations of sexual abuse tied to his relationship with Epstein.)

“That was a tough thing. I think people wanted to hear, ‘X, Y and Z were guilty of having sex with underage girls,’” Bryant says. “And you just can’t do it, it would be irresponsible to do that. And that’s a tough thing, because we might’ve had a lot of off-the-record conversations with people who implicated people in his black book.”

And then of course there’s the ultimate possible conspiracy at play in Filthy Rich: How in the world was Epstein given such a light punishment in 2008 — the “deal of a lifetime,” as it’s been called, allowing him to return to his predatory lifestyle and assault countless more victims in the decade that followed?

The uproar over the case was so intense in 2019 — particularly in a post-#MeToo era, that Acosta, who was serving as Labor Secretary in the Trump Administration, was forced to resign over his role in the secretive, bewildering Epstein plea deal. "Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from the victims,” reported the Miami Herald.

“The deal happening in secret behind these women’s backs is no doubt [telling us] something else was at play here,” Bryant says, noting there is a Justice Department investigation into the case currently underway. “From all I could tell in our reporting, Alex Acosta stands by his statements that he wanted him to go to jail and the best deal that he could’ve gotten was those two charges of basically soliciting a prostitute and procuring a minor for prostitution… Nobody really knows [what happened]. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of it, and hopefully the plea deal is overturned… Hopefully those answers will come.”

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is now streaming on Netflix.

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