In 2009, the world’s biggest movie star developed an unlikely friendship with some obscenely wealthy Hollywood wannabes, whose millions in gifts to the Oscar winner became a focus of the largest corruption case in U.S. history.
On the morning of July 20, 2016, just as Leonardo DiCaprio was preparing to welcome the usual assortment of models and multimillionaires to his annual champagne-soaked charity gala in Saint-Tropez, the U.S. Department of Justice was unveiling to the public the results of its investigation into one of the biggest corruption scandals ever, an embezzlement scheme estimated to have reached a staggering $4.5 billion.
The forfeiture complaint, filed in Los Angeles, listed more than $1 billion of U.S. assets — including Hollywood mansions, New York apartments, private jets, artwork and, most notably, the 2014 blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street, which garnered five Oscar noms and grossed almost $400 million globally — that it said had been bought with money illicitly obtained via myriad financial structures from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. Among those cited in the DOJ’s filings were Riza Aziz, the stepson of then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the producer who set up Red Granite Pictures alongside Joey McFarland with the help of $64 million tapped from 1MDB. Then there was Jho Low, the flamboyant financier and big spender who had successfully leveraged his close ties with Razak to use 1MDB to his advantage.
DiCaprio’s connection to the 1MDB scandal can be traced back to October 2009 and his relationship with Low. Still in his late 20s yet newly flush with what the government claims was $700 million in allegedly siphoned 1MDB funds, the baby-faced Malaysian had embarked on a wild U.S. shopping spree — regularly dropping millions of dollars in A-list nightclubs as he attempted to lure celebrities into his paid-for orbit. Paris Hilton and Jamie Foxx were among those drawn in by his seemingly bottomless pockets, and he reportedly dated Miranda Kerr. But DiCaprio was the prized asset.
Alongside the gifts that he would shower on his new friend DiCaprio — including a lavish trip to South Africa to watch the 2010 World Cup, a Basquiat painting and even Marlon Brando’s Oscar for 1954’s On the Waterfront — Low would become a neighbor, spending $39 million (traceable back to 1MDB) on a vast Hollywood Hills mansion just a few doors down from the star.
Four years later, the scene is markedly different. Ex-PM Razak is facing trial in Kuala Lumpur (and potentially the rest of his life in prison), while Aziz spent four straight days being grilled by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission in early July. Low, meanwhile, is on the run, believed to be hiding in China. Some reports suggest he may even have undergone plastic surgery to evade capture. Last year, Kerr, now married to Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, handed over more than $8 million in jewelry he had given her.
Billion Dollar Whale, from Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, tells the complex story of Low and the international players who had a role in the 1MDB scandal. This excerpt describes how they managed to suck in Hollywood’s biggest star and throw one of the most spectacular parties in the history of Cannes. And how it all came crashing down. — Alex Ritman
• • •
Johannesburg, South Africa — July 2010
The deep house music was pulsating in the VIP area of Taboo, one of Johannesburg’s top nightclubs. The South African financial capital, in the midst of hosting the soccer World Cup finals, thronged with visitors, and the nightclub was heaving. At the club’s gold-themed main bar, perched on a designer transparent plastic high stool, Aimee Sadie was enjoying the evening. A few drinks in, the black-haired television personality and entrepreneur was surprised when a friendly American in a suit approached her. It was Joey McFarland, the talent booker and friend of Paris Hilton.
“Would you like to join us in the VIP? Leonardo DiCaprio is there and he’s been eyeing you,” McFarland told Sadie.
Thrilled to be asked, she accompanied McFarland, slipping behind the velvet rope of the VIP section at the back of the club, where DiCaprio and his crew were hanging out. The actor was dressed down, wearing tracksuit pants and a baseball cap, and he was lounging on the sofa and smoking a huge cigar. McFarland, who said he worked with DiCaprio, introduced the star to Sadie, and they shook hands. But the actor seemed half dazed, sprawling on the couch, and he made little conversation. Others danced and helped themselves from a drinks table, where there was vodka, Red Bull, cranberry juice and Chivas Regal.
A few days earlier, Jho Low had made the arrangements for the VIP section, introducing himself as a businessman from Malaysia. To the club’s owner, he seemed eager to part with a spectacular amount of money. During the evening, as the group sat around chatting and dancing, McFarland asked Sadie to join them on a three-day safari in Kruger National Park, before watching the World Cup final back in Johannesburg. Around midnight, McFarland, Low and the others headed back to their suites at the luxury Westcliff Hotel, a smattering of buildings perched on a wooded hillside. As the group departed, McFarland asked for Sadie’s number and he called her from the hotel to ask if she wanted to join the afterparty. She politely declined. Despite the attraction of DiCaprio’s presence, this group and their massive security detail seemed a little strange, just sitting there in a joyless corner, she thought.
In the few months McFarland had known Low — since their first meeting in Whistler, British Columbia — the pair had become fast friends. But it was a hierarchical relationship. Low began calling the Kentuckian “McCookie,” a play on McFarland’s sweet tooth, and treated him as a younger brother, even though McFarland was about a decade older. In his work as a talent booker, the American had developed an extensive phone book, and he helped Low with favors, including throwing a party for “Fat Eric,” his Malaysian associate, featuring Playboy Playmates.
Low and McFarland also had started to talk seriously about building a Hollywood movie production business, along with Riza Aziz, the stepson of Prime Minister Najib, and for that they needed to get closer to big-name actors and directors. In early 2010, Aziz tapped Low’s connection with Jamie Foxx, whose manager began to introduce the Malaysian prime minister’s stepson around Los Angeles, telling industry bigwigs about Asian investors with $400 million to make movies.
As the trio — Aziz, Low and McFarland — planned their next move, they knew they had one trump card: their budding relationship with DiCaprio, one of the most bankable stars on the planet.
DiCaprio didn’t really need the favors, the chartered plane ride to South Africa or a box at the soccer World Cup finals. He’d been a household name since the early 1990s, and like many celebrities, he saw those kinds of freebies as an entitlement. How Low differed from other Hollywood hangers-on, though, was the sheer scale of his wealth and his willingness to spend it. There are lots of wannabe producers out there, but none threw money around like Low.
Although he was Hollywood royalty and owned a production company, Appian Way, DiCaprio still had to bow to the will of powerful studio executives, and this power dynamic had been laid bare in his faltering plans to make The Wolf of Wall Street.
In 2007, DiCaprio won a bidding war with Brad Pitt for the rights to the memoir of Jordan Belfort, whose firm, Stratton Oakmont, had marketed penny stocks to mom-and-pop and institutional investors in the 1980s and 1990s, defrauding them of tens of millions of dollars. For a while, Belfort succeeded and hosted wild parties in his Long Island offices, featuring cocaine and prostitutes. At one party, his team famously played a game that involved throwing Velcro-suited little people against a giant, sticky target (a story that inspired Low to hire Oompa Loompas for his 2012 birthday celebration). In 2004, Belfort was sentenced to four years in jail for securities fraud and ordered to repay investors, but he went free after only 22 months and began penning a memoir.
The result was The Wolf of Wall Street, a partially fictionalized tale, which prosecutors said aggrandized Belfort’s role at the firm and diminished the damage inflicted on his victims. Even the title was a stretch: Belfort’s firm wasn’t in the city limits, it was based miles from Manhattan, and he wasn’t widely referred to as “the Wolf of Wall Street.” But Belfort intrigued DiCaprio, who had made Catch Me If You Can, about master impersonator Frank Abagnale Jr., and, at this time in 2010, was about to sign on to play Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Hollywood was obsessed with greedy male financiers — from Wall Street in the 1980s to American Psycho and Boiler Room — and audiences have lapped up such depictions of financiers run amok. But the script that Terence Winter, a writer on The Sopranos, carved out of Belfort’s memoir took such depictions to a new level — it was full of unadorned debauchery, to the extent that studio executives at Warner Bros., which was developing the film, got cold feet and pulled the plug in 2008. They figured audiences wouldn’t go to see an R-rated film in sufficient numbers to earn back the $100 million it would take to produce.
Martin Scorsese, the legendary director who had worked with DiCaprio on a number of projects, was frustrated. Even though he was at the apex of his career — recently clinching his first directing Oscar for The Departed — he could not control the studios. He’d spent five months annotating Winter’s script in preparation for filming and grumbled to people in the industry that it was wasted time. In the midst of this stalemate, Jho Low entered DiCaprio’s orbit. The Malaysian’s money offered an alternative solution, one that could provide DiCaprio and Scorsese with the Hollywood holy grail: boundless financing coupled with unfettered artistic control.
In September 2010, Aziz and McFarland set up Red Granite Productions (it would later change its name to Red Granite Pictures), operating at first out of a suite of rooms in the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. Aziz was appointed chairman, and McFarland became vice chairman. As per his habit, Low took no official title. He left the day-to-day running of the firm to others. He was the secret money.
• • •
Cannes, France — May 2011
On the beach just off La Croisette, Cannes’ most iconic street, Kanye West and Jamie Foxx were performing a rendition of their hit “Gold Digger.” “Whad’up France,” yelled West, who was dressed in a white suit, as a crowd of celebrities and film-industry executives watched from a cordoned-off part of the French Riviera town’s main beach. Earlier, Pharrell Williams had opened the night with a 20-minute set under an opulent display of fireworks. In the crowd, DiCaprio, swimwear model Kate Upton and Bradley Cooper danced. Among the guests was Belfort, and he could not believe what he was seeing.
This was the biggest party of the weeklong Cannes Film Festival, and it was a multimillion-dollar coming-out event for Red Granite. A few days earlier, the fledgling firm had made a big announcement. It had reached an agreement to adapt Belfort’s memoir into a movie. DiCaprio would star as Belfort, with Scorsese directing — quite a coup for a new outfit in the industry like Red Granite. To celebrate, the
company had flown Belfort out with his girlfriend, Anne, for the party.
Some in Hollywood were already asking questions about Red Granite. Sure, people come out of nowhere in Hollywood. But who the hell were Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland? The staggering amount of money an unknown firm had paid for this launch party stirred disbelief.
The rumor was that West alone earned $1 million to perform. The rapper peppered his stage banter with weirdly positive statements including: “Red Granite will change the way films are made forever.”
“People thought the company was a real enigma,” said Scott Roxborough, a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter who attended. “A huge party, with so much money and no real films under their belt, seemed very suspicious.”
Himself no stranger to fraud, Belfort thought something wasn’t right about this setup. The event must have cost at least $3 million, Belfort calculated, as he nibbled on canapes and watched the A-list entertainment. And the movie hadn’t even gone into production!
“This is a fucking scam — anybody who does this has stolen money,” Belfort told Anne, as the music thumped. “You wouldn’t spend money you worked for like that.”
• • •
New York — December 2013
On Dec. 17, a windy, subzero winter’s night with a flurry of snow, the guests milled around outside the Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street in midtown Manhattan for the premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street. On the red carpet, McFarland and Aziz posed with DiCaprio, Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill. McFarland was in his element, boasting about his gray Brioni suit on his Instagram account. Wearing a dark blue suit and maroon tie, Low couldn’t help but attend, despite his earlier efforts to keep out of the limelight. He had to be there to celebrate this extraordinary achievement.
In just a few short years, Low had gone from being a low-tier Malaysian financier to effectively bankrolling one of the splashiest Hollywood films of the year — and one about a fraudster. Just as Belfort for a time had enjoyed the fruits of his scheme, Low couldn’t miss out on this evening. He wanted to share his success with those closest to him, and the business partners he yearned to impress.
Low posed with the Red Granite founders on the red carpet, but he didn’t take part in the photos with the main cast. He was snapped with DiCaprio, though, milling around before the performance. The pair had remained close. A month earlier, Low had attended the star’s 39th birthday party at Tao Downtown in New York’s Chelsea district.
That night, McFarland had made Page Six of the New York Post for ordering bottle after bottle of champagne. Low’s parties, and DiCaprio’s attendance at them, were by now embedded in Hollywood lore.
The Red Granite principals and Low had assiduously cultivated DiCaprio, whom they hoped would star in the 2017 remake of Papillon, or if not that, then another one of their upcoming movies. A few weeks after the Wolf of Wall Street premiere, Low sent DiCaprio a $3.3 million painting by Pablo Picasso as a late birthday present. The oil painting — “Nature Morte au Crâne de Taureau” — was accompanied by a handwritten note. “Dear Leonardo DiCaprio, Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you,” it read. Then, Low told a Swiss gallery that was storing a $9.2 million Basquiat — a collage entitled Red Man One — to transfer ownership to DiCaprio. The order, made in a letter also signed by DiCaprio, indemnified the actor from “any liability whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from these art-work [sic].” The actor also got a photograph by Diane Arbus — costing $750,000 — from Low.
• • •
Washington, D.C. — July 2016
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stepped up to the microphone in a press room at the Department of Justice’s offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Moments later, she announced the largest-ever asset seizure under the Kleptocracy Initiative. With the help of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and other Malaysian officials who met FBI investigators in secret, the Bureau had pieced together the details of one of the biggest frauds in history.
Flanked by senior Justice Department and FBI officials, Lynch laid out how the U.S. government was seeking to seize more than $1 billion in assets bought with proceeds stolen from 1MDB — the largest corruption case on record — from mansions in New York, Los Angeles and London, to a stake in EMI, a private jet, and the future proceeds from The Wolf of Wall Street, to name just a few. For maximum publicity, the Justice Department filed its lawsuit — United States v. The Wolf of Wall Street — at the District Court for the Central District of California, where Hollywood is located.
• • •
DiCaprio and Kerr in 2017 voluntarily gave up the gifts they had received from Low to the U.S. government, and the actor even returned Brando’s Oscar statuette, which was not named in the lawsuits. By then, he had a best actor Oscar of his own, for The Revenant in 2016.
Red Granite, in March 2018, agreed to pay $60 million to settle the Justice Department’s efforts to seize rights to the film company’s future profits. McFarland maintained a public presence, attending the premiere of Red Granite’s Papillon in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival. On Instagram, he posted pictures with Charlie Hunnam, the film’s star, from the red carpet.
McFarland also appeared to keep in touch with some of his old associates. In March 2017, he posted an Instagram picture from the Batu Caves, just north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. That was where Aziz, the co-founder of Red Granite, had been cooling his heels since the Justice Department’s asset-seizure lawsuit in mid-2016. Scared to travel back to the United States, fearing possible arrest, Aziz was trying to do business deals in Asia with one of Najib’s sons.
The exact whereabouts of Low remained unclear.
Adapted from the book Billion Dollar Whale. © Tom Wright and Bradley Hope by Hachette Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved
This story appears in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.