True crime media has exploded in recent years—whether it be podcasts, television series, documentaries, or movies, this genre has a unique ability to grip listeners and viewers. We are all familiar with the latest binge-watches and media executives are hard pressed to create the next one. Series like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Evil Genius, Don’t F*** with Cats, Leaving Neverland, Tiger King, and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes follow the stories of criminals, fleetingly making them the subjects of everyone’s fascination. More recently, re-enactments such as Waco, The People v OJ Simpson, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile have transformed infamous crimes into full scale cinematic productions with big names like Zac Efron and John Travolta. Recently, Netflix released the latest of its string of true crime shows. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich details the crimes of financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
After decades of sexually abusing countless girls and young women with little consequence, Epstein finally faced sex trafficking charges in 2019. In the four-part series, Director Lisa Bryant highlights how Epstein curiously evaded punishment for so long. She exposes Epstein’s manipulation of the law as well as the suspicious complacency of the individuals who were charged with bringing him to justice. Filthy Rich plainly shows how the system failed his victims, many of whom were from low-income neighborhoods and disadvantaged backgrounds.
The true crime genre is problematic and complicit in supporting the systems that failed Epstein’s victims. There is something inherently voyeuristic and insensitive about turning a crime that likely damaged many lives forever into a means of entertainment and profit. True crime shows and movies often feel cold and exploitative in their focus on the perpetrator; empathy is too often abandoned in favor of mindless entertainment. Whodunnit shows like Dateline and Investigation Discovery broadcast an apathetic approach to murders, disappearances, and sexual violence and exploitation – often reducing the victim’s pain and suffering to little more than a few hours of leisure for viewers. These shortcomings culminate in an entertainment genre – and hence a media culture – that values grisly details of exploitation and violence over details about the victim impact or survivorship.
Filthy Rich’s emphasis on practices ingrained in our justice system that benefit white, wealthy individuals is especially poignant right now, as we mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and unacceptable racial injustice and violence against our Black community members. The institutionalized racism prevalent in our criminal justice system is highlighted by how long it took to hold Epstein accountable. Consider how a wealthy white man can freely abuse and traffic dozens of girls for years despite multiple police and FBI reports of his conduct, yet George Floyd was murdered by a police officer just for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
While Filthy Rich may fall under the genre of true crime, it sets itself apart from other well known shows in its category. Unlike hit series Don’t F*** with Cats and The Ted Bundy Tapes, Bryant takes a victim-centered approach to Filthy Rich. She includes little information about Epstein himself save for what is necessary for viewers to understand his wealth, connections, and sociopathic tendencies. Conversely, every survivor interviewed shares details about their childhood, profession, hobbies, relationships, and life after their horrific abuse. The survivors interviewed are given a platform to tell their lived experiences beyond just an “entertaining” description of Epstein’s abuse and exploitation of them. Instead of passively watching the show, viewers are challenged to focus on the survivors’ humanity and empathize with their pain and struggle to process and heal from the atrocious abuse Epstein subjected them to.
Human trafficking is a crime that is difficult to grasp for many. It is often misunderstood in a way that leads to victim blame. For example, if victims are not physically prevented from leaving their trafficker, they are often written off as consensual sex workers. This common mistake makes the show’s survivor testimony all the more critical to educating our community, addressing myths and misconceptions and raising awareness. Bryant expertly documents Epstein’s and accomplice Ghislane Maxwell’s calculated economic and psychological manipulation of his victims, including his threats and stalking of those who tried to seek help. In doing so, Bryant makes clear that these women—some just children at the time—were trapped. The dire importance of intervention by those who see the signs of trafficking is revealed through a man interviewed in the series who worked for Epstein and saw signs of the abuse firsthand. At the time, it made him uncomfortable and suspicious—looking back, he wished he had acted on those suspicions. This highlights just how important it is to educate the public on what human trafficking looks like and what it doesn’t and what to do if you do suspect it is happening hidden in plain sight.
Survivors of human trafficking (and televised crime victims in general) are often sensationalized like murder victims in the average Dateline episode. True crime series are often performative; even the docuseries Don’t F*** with Cats that attempts to offer social commentary by critiquing our obsession with true crime seems ingenuine in light of its showing the killers’ own recordings of his crimes with barely a mention of his victim. Sadly, white, wealthy women who are low-risk victims tend to be the subject of popular shows as their victimization is more shocking and thus entertaining in our country. Filthy Rich amplifies the voices of those who are more often the victims of crime—young, low-income women, many of which suffered sexual abuse as a child.
Survivors of sex crimes—whether the subject of a show or a newspaper article—are usually nameless and faceless to us. Sometimes that is for good reasons such as safety and confidentiality. Sometimes it is because our media culture does not value their pain or abuse enough to accurately portray it. When Epstein’s crimes finally came to light in 2019, his life and persona dominated the national narrative rather than a larger conversation about sexual abuse or commercial sexual exploitation of children. Filthy Rich addresses that head on by focusing on the dehumanization of Epstein’s crimes, allowing victims to share their lived experiences with the world despite not being able to share it while facing their trafficker in a court of law. With Epstein’s alleged accomplice Ghislane Maxwell now in custody, perhaps survivors will finally see one of their abusers brought to justice. Furthermore, Maxwell may be capable of exposing other traffickers and pedophiles unknown to law enforcement who engaged in sex crimes with Epstein. As current events and the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, exposing the ingrained racism and shameful double standard of our criminal justice system is critical to ensuring that future Epsteins (and Maxwells) do not escape justice. Until wealthy White criminals can no longer strike absurdly lenient deals with law enforcement behind closed doors, true “justice” will remain elusive – an empty promise.