'Wolf of Wall Street' Producers at Center of $1 Billion U.S. Asset Seizure
Assets held by Red Granite co-founder Riza Aziz and close associate Jho Low are expected to be cited in a major civil lawsuit being filed Wednesday by the Department of Justice, linking them to a $7 billion Malaysian corruption scandal.
Red Granite Pictures, the embattled production company behind The Wolf of Wall Street, is expected to be named as part of one of the largest asset seizures in history when the Department of Justice launches civil lawsuits on Wednesday, multiple sources confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. The Wall Street Journal was first to report the news.
The banner is alleged to have become embroiled in a major corruption scandal stemming from Malaysia, understood to involve in excess of $7 billion dollars that was diverted from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund and moved around the world, lavishly embezzled in property, art and other luxury purchases between 2009 and 2015. As much as $238 million is alleged to have been funneled into Red Granite since it launched with a splash in 2011, of which approximately $100 million went to produce 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street.
No details of what assets will be seized are available, but the WSJ, citing people familiar with the matter, reports that the value will exceed the record-breaking $850 million seized by the DOJ's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in 2015 involving three telecom companies in an unrelated case and likely top $1 billion.
The seizures are expected to include the U.S. assets of Riza Aziz, CEO and co-founder of Red Granite (and stepson of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who is at the center of the scandal) and Jho Low, a Malaysian financier and close associate of Aziz and Razak and reported to be among the chief architects of the 1MDB fund, which was ostensibly set up to invest Malaysian public money into projects that would benefit the country.
Aziz reportedly owns a 11,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills, bought for more than $17.5 million, and a $33.5 million duplex in New York's Park Laurel tower overlooking Central Park. Both of the properties were already under investigation by the FBI, which was looking into whether they were acquired using misappropriated 1MDB funds, and were both initially acquired by Low (before being sold to Aziz via a shell company).
Even more valuable, however, are the assets of Low, who after announcing himself on the scene in the U.S. at the turn of the decade with a series of notorious celebrity and champagne-soaked million-dollar parties, is now understood to be living between Taiwan and Shanghai, avoiding extradition to either the U.S. or Malaysia.
The flamboyant businessman owns a penthouse apartment in Manhattan's Time Warner Center, formerly home to Jay-Z and Beyonce, which he bought for $31 million in cash in 2011. He also reportedly paid $39 million for the famed final home of Ricardo Montalban in the exclusive Bird Streets neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills, near Wolf of Wall Street star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Low reportedly introduced DiCaprio to Aziz and his Red Granite co-founder Joey McFarland, with the budding filmmakers establishing the company to finance and produce the star's passion project, based on the memoirs of disgraced banker Jordan Belfort. The film — which would go on to earn almost $400 million globally — was in 2010 in turnaround at Warner Bros, which had won a bidding war in 2007 to develop the movie with DiCaprio, but later stalled due to its sexual and drug-taking content.
While it was previously reported that no other studio was willing to take the risk on such an expensive, R-rated movie, THR has learned that there were actually several interested parties. Eventually, upstart Red Granite was chosen, with sources saying this was at DiCaprio's behest due to his close relationship with Low and the company. DiCaprio would be paid $25 million to appear in the film, and is thought to have earned much more as a producer. Low received a "special thanks" in the pic's credits.
Aside from property, Low also is the man behind some of the world's most extravagant art purchases in recent years.
In his collection is a rare original poster for Fritz Lang's 1927 classic Metropolis, which cost $1 million and is now said to be hanging in Red Granite's offices on Sunset Boulevard (in the same building as DiCaprio's Appian Way). Another iconic item is Marlon Brando's best actor Oscar statuette for On the Waterfront, bought for a reported $600,000 and given as a birthday present to DiCaprio.
DiCaprio also was the recipient of a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, which Low donated to his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and was auctioned off at the actor's annual St. Tropez gala last year, a glitzy event that raised some $40 million for the charity. It is unknown whether Low has donated any items to the foundation's 2016 fundraiser, due to take place Wednesday evening on the French Riviera.
But even splashier were purchases of some of the finest modern artworks of the 20th century, including Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 painting "Dustheads," bought for a then record-breaking $48.8 million in 2013. Other buys — including works by Picasso, Monet and Gerhard Richter — saw him named one of ARTnews magazine's "Top 200 Collectors."
Through his Hong Kong-based Jynwel Capital fund, Low also owns stakes in several international companies, most notably EMI Asia, in which he serves as a non-executive chairman. Jynwel was reported to be the majority backer of an investment consortium that purchased New York's Helmsley Park Lane Hotel for $660 million in 2013. However, it is thought to have sold its stake earlier this year.
Also reported to be cited in the DOJ's filing are the U.S. assets of Khadem al-Qubaisi, the Emirati businessman who was, up until April last year, managing director of Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company and its offshoot investment fund Aabar. Al-Qubaisi is alleged to have extensive dealings with 1MDB and, via his personal investment company Tasameen Real Estate, acquired international restaurant and club franchise The Hakkasan Group in 2008. He later increased Hakkasan's U.S. reach with purchases including a portfolio of nightclubs and restaurants in Las Vegas for $36 million in 2014, helping it become a major global player, although the company asserts that it has never received any investment from the 1MDB fund. Al-Qubaisi resigned as chairman of the Hakkasan Group earlier this year.
Away from restaurant chains and artworks, eyes in Hollywood will no doubt be looking to the future for Red Granite's upcoming slate following Wednesday's filing.
The company was actively selling its latest projects from a yacht in Cannes this year, most notably Papillon, the Charlie Hunnam-starring big-budget remake of the 1973 classic. THR has learned that the project is about to start shooting in Serbia, Montenegro and Thailand. There's also The General, the long-gestating George Washington biopic, which sources said was being pitched to buyers in Cannes as another DiCaprio vehicle (although Red Granite denied the reports).
Papillon producers Roger Corbi and Yan Fischer-Romanovsky, who took their project to Red Granite before The Wolf of Wall Street, previously told THR that they had been assured by the company's lawyers that the film wouldn't be affected.
A Red Granite spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.