They luxuriate in WASP couture—tweeds, plaids, gray galoshes—on a break from shooting grouse. He wears a beige mock turtleneck, she a drab but no doubt costly parka with flannel lining. She gazes at him, he displays his profile. A happy honey-colored retriever completes the tableau. Below reads the legend: Government Exhibit 325.
Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were constantly at work making images, recording images, purchasing images (they were major NYC art patrons), posing for photographs, manicuring their appearance (hair plugs, jaw adjustments). They surveilled their victims and even their friends/ accomplices—the mansions were bugged with pinhole cameras, likely for blackmail purposes.
Both had long relied on fabricated imagery. She was the socialite from nowhere, brandishing her father’s assumed name (he’d taken Maxwell in his own ascent to tabloid personage) and a nonexistent fortune. She arrived in New York bankrupt, daddy’s debts eroding her inheritance—even his yacht the “Lady Ghislaine” had to be sold.
He (Epstein) constantly lied about his background and education. The aspirational Harvard pullover was one small, pathetic detail in a life filled with deception. On Wall Street, he was arrested for conceiving the Towers Financial Ponzi scheme. He later made his fortune playing financial catamite to lingerie magnate Lex Waxner, owner of Victoria’s Secret.
Together, they were as vulgar, useless, and unoriginal as the economy that supported them. It didn’t matter that there was nothing beneath—no fundamental substance. The depthlessness of the masks they wore was their very essence. It was the image that mattered above all.
Sianne Ngai’s theory of the gimmick is immediately relevant to the Maxwell-Epstein franchise. She describes a mode of distraction and misdirection that becomes an aesthetic object in its own right.
The gimmick craves attention—it is something learned, rehearsed, and performed, yet never difficult to replicate. It is, Ngai suggests, the distillation of late capitalism into a series of surface effects. The credit economy is itself a gimmicky aesthetic object, exuding narrative drama—booms and busts—in lieu of the political direction liberals always promise. The gimmick is the derivative, the gimmick is risk, the gimmick is success.
Ngai: “The Gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too hard. The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too little.”
Epstein and Maxwell made practically no effort to conceal their own crimes—it was well known that they had abused and trafficked countless women. Epstein’s friend and Palm Beach neighbor Donald Trump famously told a reporter (in trademark passive voice): “It is said that Jeffrey Epstein likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
The performance of wealth and glamor had more to do with the decadence of political economy. Trump, Clinton, Prince Andrew, Alan Dershowitz, Larry Summers. Smoke and mirrors of systemic crisis.
It cannot be a surprise that a person so ensconced in elite financial culture would dehumanize women or exploit the working class (many of the survivors came from West Palm Beach). It is no surprise that white media outlets ecstatically covered the story of predation and downfall, no surprise that every image has gone viral.
The image-making project is still hard at work. It has exceeded and outlasted Epstein’s death and Maxwell’s guilty verdict. Their image, in degradation, retains a certain commercial appeal. Hence the glut of true crime documentaries (Epstein's Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell; Jeffrey Epstein: Fifthly Rich; Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein?; Surviving Jeffrey Epstein), plus countless exposes on primetime news magazines. Naomi Fry has written four columns in the New Yorker assailing Ghislaine Maxwell’s “relentless ego.”
Clearly such obscene displays of egotism, wealth, entitlement, and purielism are intriguing/ infuriating/ outrageous. But do we want Epstein and Maxwell to succeed in their ploy to make themselves interesting? No. It is their cruelty and not their sad, stupid vanity that ultimately matters.
Nicholas Gamso is the author of Art After Liberalism.