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03.30.10

Steve Bing Takes a Hit

Having blown tens of millions of dollars, Hollywood and Democratic power player Steve Bing, who turns 45 today, is tightening his belt. Kim Masters on the new reality for the tabloids' favorite mogul.

Not long ago, former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss was spotted enjoying a quiet dinner with a couple of friends, one of whom happened to be Steve Bing—the politically connected real-estate heir and film producer. As they dined by candlelight at one of Hollywood’s favorite after-hours hangouts, Fleiss leaned forward and her hair dipped into the flame. And caught fire. Fleiss extinguished her locks, unharmed and seemingly amused. As her party departed, Bing told her, “I can’t take you anywhere.” The smell of scorched hair lingered as waiters opened windows to clear the air.

Such is the recent life of Steve Bing—still in the mix from Los Angeles to Washington, but with all sorts of fires to put out.

Two sources with knowledge of the former president’s affairs tell The Daily Beast that Bing pays Clinton $2.5 million a year to serve as an adviser.

On the plus side, Bing remains a big player in Democratic circles, an exceptionally generous philanthropist and committed activist who counts some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people as his closest friends, including former President Bill Clinton. Two sources with knowledge of the former president’s affairs tell The Daily Beast that Bing pays Clinton $2.5 million a year to serve as an adviser to his green-construction business.

But now it seems that some of Bing’s spending choices—in lockstep with the economic downturn—have taken a toll. Months ago, word began seeping through Democratic circles that Bing was no longer a go-to source for money. A similar story made the rounds in Hollywood: Bing, who had financed such big-ticket films as Polar Express, was pulling back from the movie business. In both of his worlds, it’s readily apparent that he has torn through staggering sums of money over the past few years.

Asked about rumors that Bing’s money may not be as abundant as in the past, his attorney, Lynda Goldman, replied, “Welcome to the United States. I don’t think anyone’s money is as abundant as it was before. That doesn’t mean anything one way or another about Steve Bing’s money.”

Goldman adds that the real-estate heir “may have re-focused some of his giving... but that is logical because things change in the political landscape.” She adds that Bing is still “putting money out there for good and noble causes.” And Goldman says Bing is now focusing on his music label and green construction.

Despite his avowed desire to avoid publicity, Bing has been tabloid fodder for years. Living in Beverly Hills hotels—first the Four Seasons and then the Beverly Wilshire—Bing fathered a baby with model Elizabeth Hurley (established only after a paternity test) and with the ex-wife of billionaire Kirk Kerkorian (after another paternity test).

Bing’s name came up yet again in the imbroglio surrounding private detective Anthony Pellicano, now in prison for illegal wiretapping. Bing aggressively demanded retractions from news outlets that said he had hired Pellicano to investigate Hurley in connection with her pregnancy, and he got one from The New York Times. In 2006, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle said Bing had introduced him to Pellicano for help with a problem of his own. Burkle said Bing described Pellicano as “a decent guy” but ultimately, Burkle alleged, Pellicano tried to extort money from him. Associating with Fleiss, seen most recently on the latest season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew battling addiction to crystal meth, doesn’t seem likely to help him escape the tabloid glare.

In terms of his political largess, Bing, who turns 45 today, has been almost as high-profile. In 2002, he wrote the Democratic National Committee a check for $5 million. When the William J. Clinton Foundation released a list of donors in December 2008, Bing was named among those who had contributed between $10 million and $25 million and first-hand sources say his contribution was on the high end of that scale. Bing was also reported to have spent nearly $50 million to finance Proposition 86, a doomed green-energy initiative on the California ballot in 2006. And he backed Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful run for the presidency.

Meanwhile, Bing financed films, including the Sylvester Stallone flop Get Carter in 2000, and more recently expensive projects from director Robert Zemeckis. While the 2004 film The Polar Express performed well, Beowulf was a disappointment in 2007. An informed source estimates that Bing lost more than $50 million.

The perception in the movie business and political circles is that Bing may have become somewhat disillusioned with politics, either because he was disappointed when Hillary Clinton failed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination or disheartened after his green-energy initiative was defeated.

Far less mysterious, to Hollywood insiders, are the reasons that Bing might not want to invest in movies any more. One studio chief describes him as “a loyal guy, a good guy,” but says, “He’s had his fun in the movie business and it wasn’t that fun.”

Bing’s foray into recording, via his Shangri-La Music label, attracted some attention in the industry in part because of his expenditures. Among the label’s releases was the 2006 Jerry Lee Lewis album Last Man Standing. More recent products include albums from British bands One eskimO and Band of Skulls. For a while, says a prominent music executive, Bing “was signing acts like it was the old days.” But now this executive says it appears that Bing “is not going to be as wild, throwing his money around on music.”

“He’s charming and smart and funny and likes talking big ideas,” says one prominent producer. But he says Bing “treats money as if there are no consequences to losing it,” adding carefully, “One believes that his wealth is based on real estate that is illiquid.” Bing was widely reported to have inherited $600 million or more when he turned 18, but sniffs one Hollywood acquaintance, “The guy wasn’t a billionaire.”

Bing’s attorney stresses that he is still an active philanthropist and donor. Through the Clinton Global Initiative, she says, Bing has contributed toward building schools in Haiti and re-building New Orleans. In 2007, Bing pledged to match $5 million in contributions to the New Orleans project organized by Brad Pitt. Trevor Nielson, president of the Global Philanthropy Group, works with Pitt on that project and praises Bing as “a quiet philanthropist” and “someone who cares deeply about some of the problems facing the world.”

In a letter to The Daily Beast, Bing attorney’s also highlighted a number of other business projects that Bing is pursuing, including his construction business. In that pursuit, the close connection to the Clintons seems to be once again evident. Bing has been involved in a proposed green-construction project in Los Angeles that has the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Last August, the mayor hired 32-year-old Jay Carson for the newly created post of chief deputy mayor. Before taking that job, Carson worked for Bing. And before that for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. And before that for Bill Clinton.

That creates “huge ethical clouds,” according to blogger Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, since Carson’s central role in the Villaraigosa administration came as the mayor promoted a project that would benefit Bing’s company (which in turn benefits Bill Clinton). Villaraigosa has said that Carson would recuse himself from matters involving Bing—a claim met with skepticism on Kaye’s part. At this point, Kaye says, the project appears to be stalled.

But even if Bing has suffered some setbacks, says one Democratic strategist, he still lives in a manner that others can only dream of. This observer is one of several who point out that Bing “still has his plane.” Bing paid for Bill Clinton to use a Boeing 737 in August when Clinton travelled to North Korea to free two American journalists who were being held there. (Avjet, the charter company that operates the plane, said at the time that Bing picked up the $200,000 tab.)

Bing is said to still make a plane available to Clinton frequently—and without the blink of an eye.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove contributed reporting.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.