Malaysian Money Scandal Movie Threatened by Lawyers for Fugitive Jho Low
'The Kleptocrats' traces the notorious multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal, that swept into Hollywood, allegedly funding 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' and sparked the biggest asset seizure in Justice Department history.
A documentary looking into the 1MDB corruption scandal, which saw in excess of $4.5 billion allegedly stolen from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and used to finance vast global shopping sprees, including a major foray into Hollywood, has been threatened by one of its main subjects.
Lawyers working on behalf of Jho Low, claimed by the Department of Justice to be one of the central figures behind the conspiracy and now a fugitive wanted by U.S., Malaysian and Singaporean authorities, have — The Hollywood Reporter understands — sent letters to a number of distributors and platforms carrying The Kleptocrats asking for the film to be removed from their catalogs.
Directed by Havana Marking and Sam Hobkinson, The Kleptocrats first bowed at the Doc NYC fest in November and charts the scandal and Low’s alleged involvement, from his arrival in the U.S. as a mysterious billionaire playboy flush with money, to his growing friendship with celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, and the formation of the production company Red Granite, behind 2013 hit The Wolf of Wall Street, which U.S. authorities assert was funded by millions stolen from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1MBD (short for 1Malaysia Development Bhd).
The film — which includes interviews with journalists working on the story as it unraveled, including those from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Hollywood Reporter — is due to air on Starz on Aug. 5 and the BBC later this year.
THR understands that London-based law firm Schillings has accused The Kleptocrats of defaming its clients in claiming he is the central figure in the scandal, alongside infringing copyright in its use of video footage and potentially prejudicing various ongoing legal proceedings.
But the filmmakers have fought back, asserting that the film not only has been vetted by their U.K. and U.S. counsel but is also covered by its indemnities, thus negating any risk to the distributor. They also claim that the letter is simply an attempt at intimidation to silence the film, and that Low – currently believed to be hiding in China and subject to an arrest warrant — is widely considered by investigating authorities in the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia to have played a key role in the scandal.
“Knowing how passionately Schillings believe in the rule of law and justice I would be surprised if they were not willing to help law enforcement agencies in the United States, Singapore and Malaysia, in any way they can, to locate and bring to justice their client, the fugitive Jho Low, so he can answer for his alleged role in one of the largest financial frauds in history, a crime that has deeply affected the lives of so many ordinary Malaysians, struggling to maintain decent living conditions for their families in the face of shameless greed and naked corruption," said The Kleptocrats producer Mike Lerner of Roast Beef Productions.
THR has reached out to Starz and to Amazon, which continues to include The Kleptocrats on its library, and has asked Schillings if it does intend to help authorities locate its client.
Low — who is given a “special thanks” in the credits to The Wolf of Wall Street and was thanked personally by DiCaprio when collecting his Golden Globe award for the film in 2014 — remains the biggest name connected to the 1MDB scandal yet to face questioning.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who headed up the 1MDB fund and was a close associate of Low, was arrested alongside his wife Rosmah Mansour by the anti-corruption commission shortly after his defeat in his country's 2018 general election. Razak is currently on trial, facing fines and jail time of up to 20 years.
Another Low associate, Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz, who founded Red Granite Pictures with U.S. producer Joey McFarland and is alleged to have received $248 million in illicit money from 1MDB, was recently charged with five counts of money laundering and faces 25 years behind bars. Even outside of the Malaysia, McFarland has had millions of dollars the subject of forfeiture complaints by the Department of Justice, and earlier this month had artworks and movie memorabilia — all allegedly purchased by money traced back to 1MDB — seized by the feds.
But it’s the high-spending Low — believed to have not only established the 1MDB fund but to have used it as a personal piggy bank to purchase private jets, super-yachts, luxury properties in New York and L.A. and lavish gifts for his celebrity friends (in 2017 DiCaprio returned Marlon Brando's Oscar statue, a gift for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street) — who remains at large.
The letter regarding The Kleptocrats isn't the first work Schillings has done on behalf of Low. In 2018 it tried to prevent bookshops worldwide from carrying Billion Dollar Whale, which chronicles the 1MDB scandal and Low's involvement, and was written by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Tom Wright. The book has since been optioned for a feature film by Crazy Rich Asians production company SK Global and its international label Ivanhoe Pictures, with Michelle Yeoh set to produce.