If today F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had their famous exchange about the rich, it probably would go like this:
Fitzgerald: The rich are different.
Hemingway: Yes. They get better swag.
Two rarely linked sources, the Hollywood Reporter and ArtNews, tapped into this modern phenomenon with recent stories about the 2013 Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street, its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the film’s mega-rich financial backers from, of all places, Malaysia.
Here’s how it went down. The Department of Justice believes somebody siphoned more than $3.5 billion million from Malaysia’s state fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The prime suspect is Jho Low, a Malayasian high-roller who has close ties to Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak, is a close pal of the prime minister’s stepson, Raza Aziz (one of the producers of The Wolf of Wall Street), Joey McFarland (another Wolf of Wall Street producer), and DiCaprio. There is a suspicion that Aziz and McFarland’s Red Granite Pictures production company was bankrolled by Low.
The next question is, how close are Low and DiCaprio? The DOJ says in its lawsuit that, among other examples, in 2013 Low traveled to the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas where he deposited $11 million in his casino account. DiCaprio joined Low and, drawing upon Low’s account, blew through $1.15 million in a single day.
In the DOJ investigation of Low, DiCaprio is referred to as “Hollywood Actor 1.” It appears that Low has donated to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, a save-the-environment charity founded and directed by the Hollywood A-lister. And the DOJ suspects the donations came from funds Low embezzled from 1MDB.
Low and DiCaprio share a taste for excess. The Hollywood Reporter described a July 20, 2016, DiCaprio Foundation fundraiser in St. Tropez as a “freewheeling bacchanal,” where approximately 500 supermodels, billionaires, and Hollywood celebs, including Robert De Niro, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper, and Cate Blanchett swooped into the party in private helicopters. They sat down to an opulent meal that included shoals of whole sea bass. Carbon footprint and overfishing be damned. Compared to a DiCaprio blow-out, Gatsby’s parties look like a BYOB cookout in the back yard.
In the meantime, the DOJ is trying to recover at least part of the $3 billion embezzled from 1MDB. Among the assets they targeted are two paintings Low gave to DiCaprio — a Picasso, “Nature Morte au Crâne de Taureau,” valued at $32.2 million, and a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist and junkie who died at age 28 of a heroin overdose. (For some reason, he is the darling of the too-cool-for-words crowd.) The Basquiat work, entitled “Collage,” is valued at $9 million. Last week, DiCaprio surrendered both works of art to the DOJ. He may have to turn over another gift as well, a present for his birthday purchased, for $600,000, by Low, Aziz, and McFarland — the Oscar statuette that Marlon Brando won for On the Waterfront.
Probably safe are DiCaprio’s earnings from The Wolf of Wall Street, which The Hollywood Reporter estimates to be about $25 million (the film raked in almost $400 million worldwide). Only very, very rarely can the DOJ snag earnings from genuine employment — and DiCaprio was employed as the star and one of the producers of the movie.
As for Low, the DOJ is trying to seize his assets, too, including his 300-foot-long mega-yacht, Equanimity. The boat vanished a few days ago, which makes one wonder if the man the Asia Sentinel has called a “kleptocrat” is trying to hide one of his favorite toys.
What kind of world do DiCaprio and his kind live in where it’s no big deal if your buddy spots you $1.15 for a day o’ fun in Vegas, gives you $12.5 million in art just for the hell of it, and shows up at your birthday party with an irreplaceable artifact from Hollywood’s Golden Age worth $600K?
That kind of shameless opulence would have left Fitzgerald breathless, and given Hemingway another excuse to head to the bar. For DiCaprio, it appears that none of this is out of the ordinary. But what else can we expect from a man who’s got a sense of entitlement as big as the Ritz?
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.