The story of Ghislaine Maxwell is by now a familiar one. From a fixture of high society to a convicted sex trafficker, Maxwell is currently serving a twenty-year prison stint for her heinous crimes. But the sentencing of the former socialite raised more questions than it answered.
The wicked details of decades of abuse, the failures of the authorities to respond, and the suggestions of other high-profile parties implicated in the abuse left us sceptical that the case closed marked the end of this affair. In Ghislaine Maxwell: Filthy Rich, the documentarians explore the power of privilege to disguise crimes in plain sight and the networks that enable them.
Former friends of Maxwell recount her as a vivacious personality. The daughter of media magnate Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine was born with a ticket to the top. She utilised her charisma to dominate the swirling vortex of elite society. She was at the fulcrum of New York society, a “sparkling debutant”, according to erstwhile friend Euan Rellie.
Former friend Christopher Mason recorded in his diary on their first meeting: “met Ghislaine Maxwell, hilarious sense of humour”. Her persona was so affable that when he recounts the emergence of rumours that “Jeffrey Epstein kind of likes younger women and kind of likes school girls and that Ghislaine introduces him to girls because that’s his thing”, he still exudes part shock, part disbelief.
The Maxwell they knew from swanky parties and posh dos contrasts tragically with her victims’ testimony. Those girls, some as young as 14 and about whom Maxwell referred to as “trash”, speak openly and bravely about their experiences.
Annie Farmer, who testified at Maxwell’s trial, recalls meeting Epstein’s fixer at sixteen. She describes attending the Epstein ranch and the sexual abuse she suffered there. Disturbingly, she details how her sister twice contacted the FBI to report these sadistic crimes – with no effect. Despite the authorities being made aware of the abuse in no uncertain terms, it would continue for years to come.
Another survivor, Liz Stein, met Maxwell while working as a store clerk. After making a large order, she requested then 22-year-old Stein personally deliver the goods to her hotel. On arrival, Stein was met by Epstein and Maxwell at the hotel bar before being ushered up to their hotel room in an incident that would mark the first in three years of harassment and abuse to follow.
But by all accounts, Maxwell’s main recruiting grounds were schools. From here, she would bully, intimidate, coerce and outright manhandle children into performing so-called massages for Epstein. Ghislaine would then enlist the girls to recruit their friends – to meet Jeffrey’s demands of three orgasms a day – constructing a pyramid scheme to procure as many victims as the couple’s sick desires demanded.
That burning question as to how this could go unnoticed, or at least why people close to the pair turned blind eyes for so long, is never satisfactorily answered by the documentary. Though past associates acknowledge the rumours they were privy to, they are never pushed about why they failed to raise the alarm. The architect Robert Couturier, another former friend, confidently remembers that Epstein “reeked of vice”, which, far from answering, begs the question of his association with the pair.
There is evidence already in the public domain that goes beyond the scope of this documentary. In November 2019, a hot mic picked up ABC news anchor Amy Robach complaining that an interview with an Epstein victim, who had ample evidence to back up her claims, was never aired by the station. In the leaked video Robach is heard describing ABC’s reasons for pulling the interview: “I was told, who is Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story.”
The claim that a billionaire photographed on multiple occasions with everyone from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump is a nobody is incredulous. And yet, this damning evidence isn’t developed by Netflix, let alone explored.
One anonymous victim claims she was abused not only by Epstein but also by significant CEOs and politicians. But no questions are asked, and no leads are pursued. The suggestion is briefly toyed with before being moved on. On an unrelated note, Melinda Gates cited in her divorce proceedings her outrage that her ex-husband continued to meet with Epstein on several occasions after his 2008 conviction for procuring a child for prostitution and soliciting a prostitute. These seem like glaring omissions in a documentary committed to exposing the power of privileged networks.
Instead of focusing on these things, much of the documentary is concerned with the amateur psychoanalysis of Ghislaine. Perhaps she’s a narcissist or a psychopath, it speculates. Too much of the 140-minute runtime is dedicated to exploring her relationship with her father and suggesting that she found a replacement in Epstein after his death. These clumsy attempts at building a psychological profile are only marginally interesting and take the focus away from where it should be – the victims and the privileged networks that victimised them.
Ultimately the documentary asserts that Ghislaine was wealthy and powerful and, as a result, managed to evade justice for an extended period. But it fails to get into the weeds and ask or answer how and why. Who at the FBI is responsible for their negligence? Who could the ABC story and why? What other media outlets, if any, suppressed revelations about the convicted paedophiles? Who are the tech CEOs and politicians implicated in these crimes? Rather than explore these fundamental questions, the documentary is content to dance around them.
But that isn’t to say it’s not worth watching. The testimony of the victims is worth hearing. It turns these events we’ve all heard from a news item into something tangible. It clearly illustrates the horrific abuse meted out to so many victims and shines a spotlight on how they failed. Though, in the end, it does not conclude with any satisfactory answers, it deserves some praise for keeping the questions salient in our minds.