CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME
How a Malaysian Money Scandal Ensnared Leonardo DiCaprio, Miranda Kerr, and Martin Scorsese
The 1MDB financial scandal has forced Oscar-winners and models to return millions in gifts from a notorious Hollywood party boy. And more stars may soon be linked to the case.
The Wolf of Wall Street, itself a risky investment, almost wasn’t made. That’s right: Every banker bro’s favorite cinematic ode to Quaaludes and deregulation only made it to theaters by the grace of a mysterious production company named Red Granite Pictures. Founded by Riza Aziz, the stepson of the current prime minister of Malaysia, Red Granite Pictures gave more than $100 million to see DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film to completion. At the time, DiCaprio was praised for his performance; little did he know that he was pulling off a simultaneous role as “Hollywood Actor 1,” an A-lister who found himself embroiled in a large-scale Malaysian money-laundering scandal. To hear the Department of Justice tell it, what was going on behind the scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street was every bit as debaucherous—not to mention criminal—as anything in the script.
To boil down a long and growing list of allegations, Red Granite Pictures was potentially investing money that had been pilfered from 1MDB, a fund that was set up by the prime minister of Malaysia in order to jumpstart economic development. According to the complaints, more than $3.5 billion was misappropriated from the 1MDB fund from 2009 through 2015. Instead of, say, improving the well-being of the Malaysian people, 1MDB money was allegedly used to fund films like The Wolf of Wall Street and to purchase incredibly valuable artwork and real estate, not to mention a whole lot of Cristal. According to the DOJ, the funds were allegedly laundered through a series of shell companies and bank accounts located in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the United States. The money was then ultimately processed through U.S. financial institutions—hence former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s announcement last July that the U.S. would be attempting to revoke more than $1 billion in misappropriated assets.
So where does “Hollywood Actor 1”—not to mention a wide-reaching web of possibly implicated celebrities—fit into this criminal plot? The answer lies with Jho Low, a businessman and childhood friend of Riza Aziz and the man at the center of this Malaysian scandal. As early as 2009, Low made a name for himself as a hard-partying man of mystery, keeping Champagne flowing and gossip rags wondering. While the Wharton Business School grad was clearly a businessman of some sort, publications were hard-pressed to explain where exactly the money was coming from. Luckily, Low surrounded himself with club-circuit mainstays who didn’t seem to be asking too many questions, including celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. A Page Six bulletin breathlessly detailed the sugar daddy’s opulent 28th birthday in Las Vegas, when he flew his entire entourage out to Caesars Las Vegas in a “jumbo jet.” The tabloid describes a four-day extravaganza, “where sources said the swimming pool was stocked with bikini-clad party girls and surrounded by caged lions and tigers.” Low and his guests kept the party going at a Vegas nightclub, where he reportedly purchased 120 bottles of Cristal and partied with Paris Hilton, Usher, and Jamie Foxx.
But Low—who stands accused of using stolen 1MDB funds to bankroll his lavish lifestyle—had a particularly special friend in Leonardo DiCaprio. Low wasn’t just the perceived “face of the financing” at Red Granite—he also quickly became The Wolf of Wall Street star’s No. 1 bro. As an honorary member of the Pussy Posse, Low joined DiCaprio for bromantic trips, like an $11 million Las Vegas rampage. As evidence of their intimacy and/or punishment for the other guests, DiCaprio reportedly got onstage during Low’s 30th birthday party and rapped with Busta Rhymes. And like any true friendship, Low and DiCaprio’s bond was cemented through frequent, one-sided presents. Low and Red Granite Pictures even gifted DiCaprio with Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront Oscar, a $600,000 token of affection. Because what’s a little money laundering if it will finally get Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar?
According to a recently filed complaint, DiCaprio also accepted a host of crazy-expensive artworks from his hard-partying pal. Among the pieces that were marked for seizure are a $3.28 million Picasso, a $750,000 Diane Arbus photograph, and a $9.2 million Basquiat. While the latter two were personal gifts from Low, the Picasso was allegedly sourced to Low’s associate Eric Tan, who paired it with this handwritten note: “Dear Leonardo DiCaprio, Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you.”
DiCaprio’s spokesperson maintains the actor has been fully cooperative: “Last July, upon hearing of the government’s civil action against certain parties involved in the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, Mr. DiCaprio’s representatives—working under his instruction—initiated contact with the Department of Justice. This effort was to determine if there were any gifts or charitable donations originating from the parties named in the civil complaint, and to offer the return of any such gifts or donations with the aid and instruction of the government. Prior to the government’s filing of the civil pleading today, Mr. DiCaprio initiated return of these items, which were received and accepted by him for the purpose of being included in an annual charity auction to benefit his eponymous foundation. He has also returned an Oscar originally won by Marlon Brando, which was given to Mr. DiCaprio as a set gift by Red Granite to thank him for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Additionally, DiCaprio has pledged to return any donations to his charitable foundation that are found to be illegally begotten; Low reportedly donated a $700,000 Roy Lichtenstein sculpture at DiCaprio’s 2015 charity auction, and it’s hard to imagine that that was the full extent of his contributions to the foundation.
DiCaprio’s tearful goodbye to his Basquiat isn’t the only tragedy this high-profile case has wrought. Model Miranda Kerr, who was romantically linked to Low in the past, was forced to dig deep into her safety-deposit box, surrendering $8.1 million worth of fine jewels. Low gifted the pieces—including a $3.8 million, 8.88-carat diamond pendant—to the model in 2014. According to Page Six, Low made his first sparkly offering on Valentine’s Day, shortly after Kerr’s divorce from Orlando Bloom. That first present was a heart-shape diamond inscribed with the model’s initials, for the low, low price of $1.29 million.
While Kerr and DiCaprio are the only celebs to have surrendered assets to the feds so far, Low has a wide network of celebrity pals that he may or may not have paid to hang out with him. According to a 2010 Gawker report, Low paid Paris Hilton a reported $1 million to party with him in St. Tropez. Her publicist denied reports, instead claiming that, “He has not paid her in any way, although he is extremely generous.” Of course, a great way to avoid giving up your fancy things to the feds is by drinking all of your most expensive presents—just ask Lindsay Lohan, who received 23 bottles of Cristal from Low on her 23rd birthday. From flying Busta Rhymes and Ludacris to Malaysia to perform to allegedly bankrolling his favorite celebrities’ pet charities, Low has left quite the money trail in his wake.
Another high-profile recipient of Low’s largesse is The Wolf of Wall Street director Martin Scorsese. According to reports, more than $4.2 million in stolen funds were used to purchase original movie posters, including a $1.2 million original of 1927’s Metropolis. In addition to adorning his (allegedly) ill-begotten apartment with these incredibly expensive pieces of paper, Riza Aziz also gifted some of the posters to DiCaprio and Scorsese; in fact, according to the feds’ suit, DiCaprio actually introduced Aziz to the poster purveyor. And then there’s Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Institute, which received donations from Low’s Jynwel Foundation. While The Tribeca Film Institute does not deny the charitable contribution, De Niro seems rather nonplussed. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter to speak to his link to the Malaysian scandal, De Niro responded, “I don’t care whether my name is associated with it. I didn’t do anything.” He continued, “I’m aware of it, but I don’t give a shit. When I have to tell something to somebody, I’ll answer to them and that will be it.”
Rounding out the most glamorous Malaysian plot since Mugatu are all of the other celebrities that Low has either paid or partied with, including Megan Fox and Kanye West. And for an added touch of absurdity, let’s take a moment to relish in the fact that, as a result of their investigation into Red Granite, the federal government has seized the rights to Dumb and Dumber To.