American Greed: 1MDB scandal mirrors the irony of Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' on a grand scale

American Greed: 1MDB scandal mirrors the irony of Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' on a grand scale
(L-R) Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio, Low Taek Jho (Getty Images/CNBC)

It's ironic that Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' inspired thousands of entrepreneurs across the globe to achieve their dreams while telling the remarkable story of a New Yorker who ripped off thousands of unsuspecting investors for millions of hard-earned dollars. What's even more ironic is that the blockbuster was produced using illicit funds siphoned from a Malaysian state fund by a couple of bad actors, as detailed in CNBC's hit docuseries 'American Greed: Biggest Cons – The Real Wolf Of Wall Street'.

How it unfolded?

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak founded the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund in 2009 and chaired the fund's advisory board until 2016. Aimed at promoting economic development, the fund was allegedly set up with the help of Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, notoriously known as Jho Low. Low befriended Razak's stepson Riza Aziz during his time at Harrow, thereby opening a direct channel to Malaysia's former ruling family. 1MDB raised billions of dollars between 2009 and 2013 meant to be funneled into various investment projects and joint ventures.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on as Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston commence his briefing about the search mission for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce on April 3, 2014, in Perth, Australia. (Getty Images)

At some point, the US Department of Justice found with the aid of a number of senior 1MDB officials, associates, and bankers that a staggering $4.5 billion had been diverted to offshore bank accounts and shell companies, several of which were directly linked to Low and a couple of his associates. According to reports, a considerable sum of the siphoned money was used to purchase luxury assets and real estate across the globe for Low and his associates. The DOJ, since July 2016, has filed a number of civil lawsuits seeking to seize a total of $1.7 billion in 1MDB-linked assets.

Among the assets are gifts Low gave to his celebrity friends, including a Picasso painting for Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Jordan Belfort in the 2013 movie. While DiCaprio has since returned the artwork to US authorities, Low's other "assets" included a private jet, a $107-million stake in EMI Music Publishing, as well as real estate in London, Los Angeles, and New York.

That said, Low is currently rumored to be hiding out in China and has so far eluded Interpol's efforts to apprehend him. Other beneficiaries of 1MDB funds include Aziz and a friend of Low's, according to the DOJ.

(L-R) Producers Joey McFarland, actors Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and producer Riza Aziz attend the UK Premiere of "The Wolf Of Wall Street" at Odeon Leicester Square on January 9, 2014, in London, England. (Getty Images)

It later emerged a portion of the funds was used to bankroll Hollywood films 'The Wolf of Wall Street' and 'Dumb and Dumber To'. Both movies were produced by Red Granite, a production house founded by Aziz. As part of a settlement deal, the firm agreed to pay $60 million to the US government. Another stunning detail was that a person described in US lawsuits as "Malaysian Official 1" reportedly received more than $1 billion in 1MDB funds and used some of the funds to buy jewelry for his wife. That person, per US and Malaysian sources, is reportedly Razak himself. Responding to the allegations, the Malaysian government said the money in Razak's account was a "donation" from a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Parallels between Jho Low and Jordan Belfort

While Low Taek Jho allegedly embezzled billions of dollars from Malaysian coffers in one of the biggest financial heists in history, Belfort’s brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont swindled well-meaning investors by buying stocks low, illegally pumping up the price, dumping them back on investors, and finally profiting off the inflated value. Belfort paid a price for his brazen crimes in terms of rigorous jail time, but Low has so far evaded consequences. And while the scale of Low's crimes makes Belfort seem like the "Toy Poodle" of Wall Street, the two shared some uncanny similarities. Both shared a passion for superyachts. Belfort did, in real life, name his 167-footer after his then-wife Nadine. Meanwhile, Low went a step further and bought himself an ultra-lavish superyacht named Equanimity, scaling a whopping 300ft. Both vessels have since been impounded by the authorities.

Equanimity, the US$250 million luxury yacht that fugitive Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho allegedly bought with funds embezzled from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) can be seen docked at Port Klangs Boustead Cruise Terminal on August 8, 2018, in Selangors, Malaysia. (Getty Images)

Secondly, both Belfort and Low knew Hollywood star DiCaprio as he played the former's character in the movie and the latter helped fund the project, even claiming to have helped the Oscar-winner secure the role. As explored in American Greed, the duo also shared a taste for pretty women, were both party animals, and invested in a series of lush properties across the globe. "The characters involved in the 1MDB case certainly rival some of the characters that came up in Stratton Oakmont," Retired FBI Special Agent Gregory Coleman told producers of American Greed. "The crimes themselves are quite different. Jho Low's were much larger scale." 

"The whole 1MDB scenario is probably the most ironic thing about this case," Coleman added. "People allegedly stole money to make a movie about a guy stealing money. It is the ultimate irony."

'American Greed: Biggest Cons – The Real Wolf Of Wall Street' airs Monday, 07/27/20 at 10 pm ET/PT on CNBC Prime.

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