The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of Jordan Belfort, a New York City stockbroker who, during the late 1980s and 1990s, committed rampant fraud through his brokerage house Stratton Oakmont. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s one of the best films of both this decade and the illustrious auteur’s career, a hilarious and shocking black comedy about the limitless depths of human greed and the insane corruption that dominates the American financial sector.
And in a twist of jaw-dropping irony, the film itself is an example of the very wretched thing it depicts.
Premiering at DOC NYC on Friday, November 9, Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking’s The Kleptocrats is an eye-opening peek at the global embezzlement and money-laundering scandal that helped give birth to The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a true-life tale of leaders putting themselves above their constituents, of wannabe big shots reveling in their astounding ill-gotten gains, and of investigative journalists driven to bring covert crimes to light. Moreover, it’s a snapshot of the shadier side of stratospheric celebrity life, given that it involves not only DiCaprio and Scorsese, but also the likes of Paris Hilton, Kanye West, Jamie Foxx and Robert De Niro—the last of whom, at one point, responds to pointed questions from The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman by telling him, “Yeah, well, I don’t fucking appreciate it, excuse me. Get the fuck outta here. Goodbye.”
De Niro’s frustration stems from the fact that, like many others, he found himself embroiled in this international saga of intrigue thanks to his connection to Jho Low, a Malaysian playboy who once threw himself a birthday bash (attended by the aforementioned A-listers, plus Bradley Cooper, Pharrell Williams, Zach Galifianakis and Kim Kardashian) that none other than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ Robin Leach now proclaims, “The best and the most expensive party that Las Vegas has ever seen.” Low was an NYC club favorite thanks to his penchant for buying magnums of Cristal like they were bottles of Poland Spring. Before long, he came into the orbit of DiCaprio, Hilton and other Hollywood luminaries via Red Granite Pictures, an upstart production outfit that rocked the industry with a lavish 2011 Cannes Film Festival shindig, and soon opted to back Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street—even though, as trade journalists confess, no one knew the origins of their considerable cash.
That would soon cease to be the case. In 2013, The New York Times’ Louise Story began looking into illicit money being used to purchase Manhattan real estate (including NYC’s swanky Time Warner Center) through shell companies, and one of those firms was owned by Riza Aziz—one of the founders of Red Granite Pictures. Aziz and partner Joey McFarlane had no reason to be this flush with dough, and inquiries soon led Story to Low, whom she spotted at the Wolf of Wall Street L.A. premiere after-party. More digging revealed that Low was trying to buy a Time Warner Center penthouse (which DiCaprio had stayed in during production). And according to sources, he claimed he was doing so on behalf of Najib Razak, the then-Prime Minister of Malaysia.
As The Kleptocrats explicates with concision, lucidity and an excited can-you-believe-this sense of outrage, Low and Razak were cohorts in an elaborate conspiracy to enrich themselves by defrauding the Malaysian people. In 2009, Razak established 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad), a trust fund subsidized by the nation’s taxpayers that was designed to bring healthy returns to those very same people. Yet it soon became clear—through the efforts of journalists from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Malaysian opposition politicians such as Tony Pua—that 1MDB wasn’t helping anyone but Razak himself. With Low managing the fund, the prime minister used 1MDB as his personal piggybank, going so far as to pilfer its coffers to purchase a $27 million diamond necklace for his materialistic wife Rosmah (“The Imelda Marcos of Malaysia”).
He also used it to funnel money to Red Granite to fund The Wolf of Wall Street.
While Red Granite denies knowing that its cash came from illicit sources, The Kleptocrats—employing black-text-on-yellow-background title cards that echo the style of Scorsese’s film—is a damning indictment of the firm, Low, Razak and 1MDB. White-collar criminality doesn’t come much more brazen, or avaricious, than this, and directors Hobkinson and Marking expose it via multiple reportorial and activist perspectives, the better to hammer home not only the extent of this disgusting activity, but the negative impact it had on Malaysians. Even Razak’s brother Nazir partakes in this takedown, speaking about his brother’s initial desire to follow in their prime-minister father’s footsteps, and his own shock and horror at discovering that his sibling had instead opted to exploit his people’s trust in order to live in the lap of luxury.
Malaysia’s political corruption is clearly the big story here. Nonetheless, the juiciest moments in The Kleptocrats concern its American showbiz players, who apparently were attracted to Low like moths to a flame. Seeing them perform on stage at his gatherings, or chug champagne with him while he commandeers a microphone in front of screaming crowds, is to see the grossness of celebrity excess and indulgence laid bare. Many of these stars, of course, were simply around Low because he threw a great party. But in the revelation that DiCaprio spent significant time with Low (and even received a Picasso painting from him), and that Miranda Kerr accepted thousands of dollars of jewelry from him when they briefly dated, Hobkinson and Marking’s doc suggests that the super-elite are comfortable with just about anything—or, at least, are fine with not asking questions about their wealthy pals so long as it benefits them.
According to The Kleptocrats, DiCaprio and Kerr do plan on returning all those gifts, and in 2018, Razak was voted out of office, thus ending his party’s six-decade rule. That’s only partial consolation for the Malaysian people, however, who’ve yet to receive any restitution from The Wolf of Wall Street, which earned $392 million globally thanks to the money-laundering financing of its own Jordan Belfort-ish creep, Jho Low (who’s personally thanked in its credits!).
No wonder Pua says that, when it comes to Scorsese’s movie, “It appears that they are laughing at Malaysians.”