- May 30, 2020
In Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, a traveller comes across a broken statue in the desert consisting of ‘ two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ protruding from a plinth, and ‘a shattered visage’ lying half-buried in the sand ‘ whose frown/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command/Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/Which yet survive.’ This is all that remains of ‘Ozymandias, King of Kings’, the tyrant of an unnamed empire whose power has proven to be as pathetically ephemeral as his attempt to preserve it for posterity.
There will never be any monument to the billionaire socialite, philantrophist, financier, and serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Millions of people will remember him only from his mugshots, and very soon few people will remember him at all. Most of the photographs taken of Epstein over the years show the same closed, inward-looking gaze, the same faint knowing smirk of a man who abused and exploited young girls and women in the belief that he would never have to face the consequences.
There is nothing in Epstein’s criminal career to suggest that he was ever concerned about the consequences for his victims. This was a serial predator who appeared to regard women solely as his own personal sex toys. For most of his life, he got away with it, and was able to use his wealth to bend and twist the law in ways that would not have been remotely imaginable for anyone without his networks and resources.
All this is laid bare in Netflix’s grim but compelling documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. As a general rule, I’m not a big fan of televised true crime. I recognise their morbid fascination, but I’m suspicious of the motives for making these programmes and of the motives of those who watch them. But Filthy Rich is different. To its great credit, it allows Epstein’s victims time to speak at length about the abuse they suffered, and also its longer term consequences.
Bearing in mind that some of these women were depicted as liars and prostitutes by Epstein’s legal machine, the series unflinchingly depicts their individual traumas – and many of them were already vulnerable and traumatised even before they fell into the hands of Epstein and his ghoul-like procuress Ghislaine Maxwell – and also honours their strength, courage, and resilience in bringing Epstein to justice.
In recognising them as survivors rather than victims, it gives them the dignity and humanity that Epstein and his lawyers tried to strip from them. So this isn’t a documentary in search of morbid titillation; it’s inspiring, insightful and essential viewing, and it will hopefully help other victims of abuse to come forward, and educate society about the longterm destructive impact of sexual violence, and the psychological techniques that underpin sexual trafficking.
Last, but by no means least, it casts light on the world that protected Epstein – a world where money, celebrity, and power overlap, and a seemingly endless procession of sleazy middle-aged men – and also younger women – not only protected Epstein, but also participated in and facilitated his activities. Because it is too easy to write off Epstein as a pervert or an arch-manipulator, like Jimmy Savile, who simply fooled the gullible. Epstein’s crimes, like Savile’s were open rumours and sometimes more than that, but too many people did not act on what they believed or knew, because Epstein had reached a high enough place in society for his crimes not to matter, and because the victims of these crimes were mostly girls who did not matter.
Prince Andrew, Woody Allen, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey and many others were all part of Epstein’s world. Many of them benefited from his ‘philantrophy’, his brilliant mind, his ‘Lolita flights’, and some of them undoubtedly took part in the same abuse and exploitation that eventually brought him down. Nearly all of them are aghast now – aghast I tell you – because these are all honourable men. And so now they distance themselves from Epstein, or attribute their interactions with him to his philanthropy, his endowments, or his ‘passion for science.’
Some of them – such as our sweatless clown prince – are undoubtedly lying about what they knew and what they did, and some of them – such as the friends who continued to attend Epstein’s parties even after he was convicted, clearly didn’t care what he did. Epstein is dead now, in circumstances for which the adjective ‘murky’ is something of an understatement, and many of these friends will be keen to forget all about him, and some will be hoping that the photographs and videos taken by their one-time friend never materialise
Filthy Rich reminds us why we shouldn’t forget. It makes it clear that the arrogant criminal who we see brazening it out with the prosecution lawyers is only one part of the story, that the other monsters who were part of his circle are still out there, and that justice will not be served until they also stand before a judge and jury.
In the meantime, the mugshots of Epstein, with their ‘sneer of cold command’ can at least remind us that this is one gilded beneficiary of our corrupt gilded age who didn’t get away with it, and this grim but essential documentary shows us how that happened, and how far we still have to go.