Airing exactly one year after he was found dead in his jail cell, “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” is as current as today’s headlines — because it’s not just about Epstein, but about Ghislaine Maxwell, too.
Generally described as “Epstein’s former girlfriend,” Maxwell is sitting in a jail cell, facing charges related to her role in “sexual exploitation and abuse of multiple minor girls by Jeffrey Epstein” as early as 1994, according to court documents. And some of those girls were as young as 14.
Epstein is, of course, the main focus of the four-hour documentary, which airs Sunday and Monday on Lifetime. It recounts how he used his wealth and connections to get away with molesting and sexually assaulting teenage girls — minors — for decades.
But “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” also focuses on Maxwell. Not just on how she got involved with Epstein, but how she was allegedly involved in his crimes, according to survivors.
“They bring a different understanding to who she was and how she affected their lives,” said co-director Annie Sundberg.
“We take a look at the ... grooming of potential victims — and how, allegedly, Ghislaine Maxwell trained recruiters to create this abuse pipeline,” said executive producer Bob Friedman. “She was such an important piece of this story.”
Maxwell pleaded not guilty, but she’s been judged a flight risk so bail has been denied. Her trial is scheduled to begin in July 2021.
Part 1 of “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” airs Sunday at 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight on Lifetime; Part 2 airs Monday at 7 p.m., followed by a repeat of all four hours from 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
The filmmakers’ goal was to tell the survivors’ stories in their own words. And multiple women who say they were molested and/or assaulted by Epstein — many of whom never met each other — tell remarkably similar stories.
Survivor Rachel Kay Benavidez said participating in “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” was an “emotional rollercoaster” and “a bit brutal,” but that it “was a good experience” because the filmmakers “didn’t pressure me” and were “very respectful about our boundaries.”
“But it’s a hard thing to go on television and be vulnerable and tell your story,” she added.
Survivor Kiki Doe said that when she filed suit against Epstein’s estate a year ago, she was “hell-bent on remaining anonymous.” But when she decided to go public, it became “a little bit more empowering every time you do it.”
“It’s very retraumatizing to tell your story,” she added, but the filmmakers “did a great job.”
Maxwell is the daughter of Robert Maxwell, a Jew who escaped from the Nazis, immigrated to the U.K., built a publishing empire, and was elected to Parliament. At the peak of his success, his wealth was estimated at $1.9 billion. But after he apparently fell off his yacht — the Lady Ghislaine — and drowned in 1991, it came out that he had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from his workers’ pension funds and his businesses were $4 billion in debt.
Ghislaine, then 29, went from being an heiress to a so-called socialite — without any money of her own until she moved to the United States and became closely associated with Epstein.
Several people who have known Maxwell for years — decades — are interviewed in the program.
“Clearly the Ghislaine story is such an important part,” said Friedman. Not just as part of the larger story, but because it’s “the story of women recruiting women” — or underage girls — to allegedly be sexually abused and assaulted. “It’s about time that this story is told.”
Almost as shocking as the allegations against Epstein is that, after he pleaded guilty to soliciting an underage prostitute in a sweetheart deal, it seemingly didn’t affect him or Maxwell at all.
“It’s still amazing for all of us,” Friedman said, “that after the arrest in 2008, that Jeffrey Epstein — and at this point, Ghislaine, from what we’ve heard — were not social pariahs.”
That continues today in the White House. In an interview that aired this past Monday on HBO, Donald Trump doubled down on his earlier comments about Maxwell, saying, “Yeah, I wish her well.”
Benavidez pointed to the “obvious disparity” in this case — that Epstein’s “power, money, wealth” kept him out of prison for decades. “It’s sickening, and it needs to be stopped,” she said.
Brittany Henderson, a lawyer for many of the survivors, said Maxwell’s arrest was “so important to many of our clients — even our clients who didn’t personally know Ghislaine Maxwell still felt this huge sense of justice.”
The filmmakers had to scramble when Maxwell was arrested at her remote New Hampshire home in early July. (She tried to flee arresting officers, according to court documents.)
The fourth and final hour of the documentary was “very different” before the arrest, and it’s now “as much about Ghislaine’s arrest as it is about the [survivors] having this moment to say, ‘We are going to get our day in court,’” said co-director Ricki Stern. ”Maybe a different kind of day in court, but it allows them to have their voice in a public arena and to [tell] their stories in a way to make change.”
And it changed the ending of “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” — for now.
“The fact that Ghislaine has been arrested really adds a much more uplifting end to the story,” said Stern. “And it’s just the beginning, so I’m sure there will be follow-up.”