The 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on the life of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who pushed penny stocks from a boiler room dubbed Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s and served 22 months in jail for defrauding investors. In a sublime case of art imitating life – or the other way around – the Wall Street Journal has alleged that the film’s production was itself funded by dirty money, specifically funds from the scandal-ridden Malaysian development fund 1MDB.
According to the WSJ’s investigation, Riza Aziz, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson, siphoned $155 million from 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a government-owned fund that says its mission is “to drive sustainable economic development by forging strategic global partnerships and promoting FDI [foreign direct investment].” Passing through a tangle of offshore shell companies, the money ended up in Red Granite Pictures, a production studio that appeared on the scene with a lavish fête at the Cannes film festival in 2011. (See also: Is Belfort’s “Wolf” The Real Wall Street?)
Later that year the company produced “Friends With Kids,” which received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences. Soon after, Malaysian businessman Jho Low (accused in March 2015 of taking $700 million from 1MDB) introduced Aziz and his partner at Red Granite, Christopher “Joey” McFarland, to Leonardo DiCaprio. The star had been pitching a film version of Belfort’s autobiography for years, with no luck. Red Granite began in August 2012, with Martin Scorsese directing.
According to the WSJ, the $155 million that made its way to Red Granite from 1MDB travelled via a company named Aabar Investments PJS Ltd., a British Virgin Islands-based company not to be confused with Aabar Investments PJS, a part of the Abu Dhabi sovereign-wealth fund that did apparently legitimate business with 1MDB. An American, Mohamed Ahmed Badawy Al-Husseiny, headed the latter and helped set up the former.
From there it split into a $50 million portion that traveled via intermediaries to Telina Holdings, and then to Red Granite Capital – both based in the British Virgin Islands – which then routed it to Red Granite Pictures. The other $105 million took a slightly less circuitous route to Hollywood, passing through Red Granite Capital. None of the $400 million the film grossed appears to have made it back to Malaysia, where audiences did not even get to see the movie. Distribution was canceled after Malaysian authorities demanded more than 90 portions be cut for violating morality laws.
No one is alleging the makers of “Wolf of Wall Street” engaged in debauchery quite as elaborate as that depicted in “Wolf of Wall Street.” But it appears that, as the movie’squestionable financial dealings have parallels in the film’s actual making, so does its over-the-top partying. In 2012, as filming was wrapping up, Aziz, DiCaprio, Low and others celebrated New Year’s Eve in Australia and then promptly flew to California to do it again.
The “Wolf of Wall Street” allegations are far from the only ones affecting 1MDB. Najib’s wife is believed to have gone on a $130,625 shopping binge at Chanel in Honolulu and a separate €750,000 one at De Grisogno in Sardinia. Then there’s the matter of $618 million in Najib’s personal accounts, which investigators believe came from 1MDB. Malaysia’s attorney general said the Saudi royal family donated the funds legally and that most of the money was returned.