27 Dec 2013

Wall Street Greed / Malaysian Money – EXPOSE!

Wall Street Greed / Malaysian Money – EXPOSE!

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Disrespectful? The Malaysian funded depiction of greed and debauchery on Wall Street was launched on Christmas Day in the US.

Disrespectful? The Malaysian funded depiction of greed and debauchery on Wall Street was launched on Christmas Day in the US.

The wife of the PM, Rosmah Mansor, is apparently advocating that every Malaysian school child should be shown the newly released Leonardo di Caprio film, The Wolf of Wall Street, in order to warn them against greed and immorality.

One wonders how she proposes to get around the fact that the film has been X-rated owing to the violence and sex scenes, which extend to drug taking and mass orgies?

The makers of the film reportedly tempted director Martin Scorcese onto the project by allowing him a free hand to make the movie as hard core as he liked, thereby limiting audiences in America to over 17 unless accompanied by a suitable adult:

“In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio won a bidding war against Brad Pitt for the rights to Jordan Belfort’s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, which followed the downward spiral (and eventual jailing) of one of the Street’s brightest stars as he got hooked on drugs and prostitutes — while the FBI nipped at his heels. “It was almost like a modern-day Caligula,” says DiCaprio, who stars as Belfort” [Hollywood Reporter]

There is also the question of cost.

Riza Aziz (left) is reportedly the money behind Red Granite Pictures

Riza Aziz (left) is reportedly the money behind Red Granite Pictures

In some schools in Sarawak children sleep side by side on the floor under leaking roofs, owing to cash restraints.

Yet mass screenings of a top new movie would presumably involve paying out scarce funds to the production company.

Perhaps the powerful wife of the PM figures that at least the production company is Malaysian owned, so that the public money would be supporting a local enterprise?

More specifically, the production company behind The Wolf on Wall Street, Red Granite Pictures, is headed and financed by her own son Riza Aziz (Riza Shahriz Bin Abdul Aziz), a fact that was till now unbeknown to most Malaysians.

Red Granite was founded by Aziz in 2010 and has already bankrolled a number of big name projects, including ‘Friends With Kids’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber To ‘, as well as The Wolf of Wall Street, which had been dropped by mainstream studios.

In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street the reasons for dropping the movie was its disgusting content – Scorcese was heckled at a recent Academy showing, according to reports, with the words “shame on you“!

Copious sex, drugs and violence - movie makers Marfarland, Scorcese and Aziz

Copious sex, drugs and violence – movie bankrollers Red Granite include Riza Aziz (right)

Where did the money come from?

How Riza Aziz emerged as a major bankroller of Hollywood movies is of obvious interest. Could it be linked to his family position and circle of associates?

Jho Low the partying 'billionaire'

Jho Low the partying ‘billionaire’

It has already been noted that Najib Razak’s step-son, is a close associate of the controversial and flamboyant financier Jho Low (Low Taek Jho) a Penang business graduate educated in the UK and US, who has acted as the front man in a number of eyebrow-raising business deals linked both to Taib Mahmud in Sarawak and Najib’s pet project the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad.

Indeed, Jho Low’s series of notorious antics, distributing Crystal Champagne around the world’s top nightclubs and lavishing vast sums on famous women like Paris Hilton and Taiwanese pop star Elva Hsiao, suggest a remarkably similar animal to the character supposedly deplored in the film, the jailed Wall Street financier Jordan Belfort (although Sarawak Report would not wish to imply that any of the misconduct depicted in the film applies to Mr Low).

Low was prominent at the launch party for the film, posing next to Riza Aziz and his partner in Red Granite Pictures, the Kentuky ‘private equity cowboy’, Joey Mcfarland, on stage at the event, which will further fuel speculation over possible links.

Riza Aziz, Joey Macfarland and Jho Low pose at the launch of Wolf Of Wall Street

Red Granite Picture’s Riza Aziz and Joey Mcfarland with finance ‘whiz kid’ Jho Low at the launch of Wolf Of Wall Street

Mega Finance linked to Malaysia

The Hollywood coverage of the fast trajectory of Red Granite Pictures from nowhere in 2010 to a “top company to watch” in just three years has made no bones about the supposedly deep pockets of Riza Aziz, widely described as the ‘son of the Malaysian Prime Minister’.

This was how the New York Magazine’s ‘Vulture’ section put it back in 2012:

Reported in the New York Post

Reported in the New York Magazine

For days now, talent agencies have buzzed with the news that Leonardo DiCaprio might be finally committing to star in The Wolf of Wall Street for director Martin Scorsese, a project that was first reported exclusively by Vulture almost a year ago today. Then, earlier this morning, Deadline carried the news that the funding had at last been locked into place, courtesy of Wall Street big-shots themselves: Riza Aziz, a former HSBC investment banker from London, and Joey McFarland, a private equity cowboy from Kentucky. Their Red Granite Pictures will be fully financing the feature adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his boozy, debauchery-rich journey to multimillionaire in the Reagan eighties to federal convict..”[Vulture 3/15/12]

The Hollywood Reporter described Red Granite Picture’s launch party in Cannes as “one of the hottest parties in years”, describing the up-coming Wolf of Wall Street as a $100 million dollar film. They boast a rare interview with Aziz, which for Malaysians provides some fascinating information:

Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 12.57.12

“Red Granite was formed by Riza Aziz — the 35-year-old son of Malaysian Prime Minster Tun Abdul Razak and among the new generation of film financiers flocking to Hollywood — andJoey McFarland, 40… In one of the few interviews they’ve given, Aziz and McFarland, both with a background in finance, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how they’ve spent the last year, their plans for the company and their determination to stay on budget with Wolf…..

Aziz: We’d like to make three to five films a year, with one tentpole and two or three films with more modest budgets in the $20 million to $40 million range.

THR: How much money are you backed by?

McFarland: We do not talk about that.

Aziz: I will say that I have money invested in the company. It shows that I have skin in the game and am committed from a financial point of view. We also have a group of investors, mainly from the Middle East and Asia.

THR: What does your father think of your new venture?

Aziz: I have leeway, but he likes to know that the projects we do have pedigree.[Hollywood Reporter]

Sarawak Report suggests that the above remarks by Najib’s step-son imply strongly that his money is family money and that he is to an extent accountable to his ‘father’ the Prime Minister, who gives him ‘leeway’.

Aziz in a family pose

Aziz (left) in a family pose with Rosmah and siblings

If Malaysia was blessed with a free media this would be enough to provoke a barrage of questions as to exactly how the son of Rosmah Mansor has acquired these hundreds of millions of dollars to flush through major Hollywood movies?

Because, if the money is Najib’s, how did the PM get to be so rich?

This is unlikely to be a comfortable subject for the Malaysian BN leader, who is heavily caught up in the Scorpene Submarine kickback scandal that is soon due to appear in a French court over the payments of €119million to a Malaysian company run by his personal negotiator on the deal, Razak Baginda.

Alternatively, there is a lot of reference in the Hollywood Press to Mr Aziz’s own personal fortune, allegedly made as an investment banker in the UK.  This is how Riza Aziz described his money-making career as an investment banker to the Hollywood Reporter:

THR: Riza, you come from a political dynasty. How did you get from Malaysia to Hollywood?

Aziz: My background is in finance and I was in London for close to 10 years. I took a sabbatical from all the chaos that was happening in 2008 and decided to travel the world. I came to the U.S. and was offered the opportunity to get involved in a lot of different things business-wise, and one of them was to be involved in a film with some friends. From that one project, more kept coming in, so we decided to have a company. We began building the team and I brought Joey in at an early stage.

So could Aziz have made the money himself?

Sarawak Report has researched Riza Aziz’s banking career after leaving the London School of Economics in the year 2000.  It appears that he worked with the management consultants KPMG for two years till 2002 and then at HSBC London from 2005 until the financial crash in 2008:

Multi-million dollar investment banker's CV?

Multi-million dollar investment banker’s CV?

According to the Financial Services Authority, Riza Aziz was employed in a relatively minor role at HSBC for five years, although Aziz himself says he resigned in 2008.  It is a perfectly respectable CV, but for a man who didn’t inherit family money from his mother or father (who worked as a bureaucrat) his ‘investment banking career’ does not explain the source of his finances.

'Investment banker', Riza Aziz

‘Investment banker’, Riza Aziz

Yet flush with cash the young Malaysian most undoubtedly now is, raising comment even in the capitalists’ capital of New York, where he recently bought a flash 7 bedroom home for $33.5 million in a smart zone of town.

Big spending Aziz makes no secret of his connections in Malaysia

Big spending Aziz makes no secret of his connections in Malaysia

Reports on the purchase once again refer to the unconvincing ‘investment banker’ explanation for Aziz’s money:

Aziz, who reportedly makes his money as an investment banker, has been pegged as a producer to watch. He is one of a new generation of film financiers making their mark in Hollywood, according to a recent story in Variety.” [The Real Deal]

Mystery Malaysian investment – the Jho Low connection?

However, other Hollywood newspapers speak of a separate form of income entirely, in the form of third party investors.

Big money buy outs of movie projects that other studios decided were too dangerous to handle

Big money buy outs of movie projects that other studios decided were too dangerous to handle

For example, The Los Angeles Times refers to “undisclosed investors in the Middle East and Asia”.

If so, these investors are mighty trusting.

Red Granite Picture’s business model is one that may very well bring success, if it bets on the right movies.  However, it clearly demands an ability to be able to risk enormous sums of money up-front.

The LA Times repeats the narrative that Red Pictures buys up promising production projects that other studios have dropped, because they have become too fraught and dangerous:

Where movie studios see trouble, Red Granite Pictures sees opportunities”, the paper says. It continues:

“The new finance and distribution company’s business plan is both contrary and simple: Make the films the studios don’t.

Among its first projects are Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which comes out Wednesday, and next year’s “Dumb and Dumber To,” the intentionally misspelled sequel to the 1994 comedy.

On the surface, those pictures don’t exactly seem like the sort that a major studio would cast aside.

But both were complicated projects, fraught with thorny issues. Red Granite’s founders, Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland, said they thrive in these sorts of scenarios.

“One of our sweet spots is movies that have died in the studios — movies that are just great product that everyone was hot on but for some reason or another just didn’t make it to the greenlight stage,” said McFarland,41, a Louisville, Ky., native who is Red Granite’s vice chairman. [Los Angeles Times 24/12/13]

It all gives the impression of young men with breath-taking self-confidence and more importantly money to burn. Co-producer Joey McFarland has confirmed that the money comes not thanks to him, but Riza Aziz.

Joey Macfarland's movie ambitions were made possible by Malaysian money and Riza Aziz

Joey Mcfarland’s movie ambitions were made possible by Malaysian money and Riza Aziz

The recent LA Times article continues:

“Every movie is different,” said Aziz, 37, who is the son of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. “We are very flexible in the model we [can] pursue.”

Red Granite raises money from a pool of undisclosed investors in the Middle East and Asia, and finances its movies on a one-off basis. The company is able to greenlight a picture without a distribution deal in place. But because it doesn’t have a fund it can tap, Red Granite must convince its investors that an individual project is worth the risk, rather than having the comfort of money to underwrite an entire slate.”

It is surely interesting for Malaysians to know that the PM’s step-son has such access to enormous funds for such enormous risks. There is talk in KL that a number of Malaysian companies are among those who have been encouraged to put money into Wolf of Wall Street. One can only speculate as to why they might have felt encouraged to do so.

Meanwhile, it also seems valid to ask whether the peculiar financial background of Aziz and Rosmah’s close friend, the 28 year old Jho Low (described as a “billionaire” in a number of American news reports), be linked to this financial muscle?

The flamboyant financier’s own interest in the movies and friendship with Di Caprio certainly pre-dates Red Granite Pictures.

'International Man of Mystery'

‘International Man of Mystery’

Back in 2009 The Star Newspaper reported:

“He [Low] has been trying to convince his Hollywood friends like Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx and Leonardo di Caprio to use Malaysia as a location for movies.”[Star

In which case was it the connection with Low that brought his friend Leonardo di Caprio and his film project about a 'modern day Caligula' to Red Granite Pictures and Riza Aziz?

Partying Paris Hilton at San Tropez

Partying Paris Hilton at San Tropez

If so, it throws a new perspective onto Jho Low’s links with Najib Razak’s pet project 1MDB Malaysia, the development bank, which has raised billions through undisclosed, private bonds arranged by, amongst others, Goldman Sachs.

1MDB’s investments have been increasingly controversial, focusing mainly on buying up ageing power companies, which appear to be of questionable value in developing the state of Malaysia.

One of the investors involved in 1MDB is the low profile Middle Eastern venture Petro-Saudi, who were also the buyers when the Taib family sold out of their controversial stake in UBG bank  back in 2011.

Jho Low himself had earlier become involved in UBG, coming onto the board as a Director in 2008 after a major share purchase, on behalf of the Abu Dhabi owned company Majestic Masterpiece.

The young Penang born financier makes much of his fantastic connections, both in Hollywood and the Middle East (particularly Abu Dhabi), allegedly made through networking as a Harrow schoolboy and at Wharton Business School in the US.

But it is his ostentatious high living that has mainly brought Jho Low to the attention of the Malaysian public.  It was he who apparently topped the record for high spending in a New York nightclub, buying champagne for all the assembled guests.

Jho Low also astonished onlookers with the sheer lavishness of a party put on for a girlfriend on a yacht in Taiwan and again drew attention when he partied Paris Hilton with jaw dropping extravagance.

So, could Jho Low be the organiser assisting in the financing of Red Granite Pictures and is that why he was so prominent at the launch and at Leonardo di Caprio’s recent birthday bash?

One of the 'billionaires', 20 something Jho Low owns Jynwell Capital

One of the ‘billionaires’, 20 something Jho Low owns Jynwell Capital

In which case, many may wonder if the link to the top political players in Malaysia and friendship with the PM’s step-son might account for Jho Low’s easy access to investment income or indeed if he is the front man for others?

Court action

Meanwhile, it is not all praise from the Hollywood establishment. One major production company, Motion Picture Corporation of America (MPCA), is suing Red Granite Pictures for a breach of covenant over the other major movie it has ‘bought out of trouble’, the sequel to the popular 90s comedy Dumb and Dumber.

The on-going case has been widely covered in the media and MPCA is far from complimentary about the skills and know-how of the brash newcomers who bought up their original idea:

"using money from the Malaysian PM's family" to squeeze them out...

“using money from the Malaysian PM’s family to squeeze them out”..

In their legal deposition the veteran producers Steve Stabler and Brad Krevoy who own MPCA have harsh words for Aziz and Mcfarland, who they say owe them hundreds of thousands for the original work on the film:

“McFarland and [Aziz] lack the experience necessary to successfully produce motion pictures themselves. Although Red Granite apparently has family money from [Aziz], Red Granite will not succeed with money alone because McFarland and [Aziz]‘s experience producing motion pictures during their short tenure in the industry consists of cavorting at nightclubs with Paris Hilton and making dinner reservations at posh nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles.” [Legal deposition against Red Granite Pictures]

"Macfarland and Aziz's misconduct and hubris will cause them to crash and burn"

“Macfarland and Aziz’s misconduct and hubris will cause Red Granite to crash and burn”

It is an attack that strengthens the apparent links with Jho Low. Malaysians will be interested to see that the very parties attended by Jho Low appear to have also been linked to Riza Aziz, according to this deposition.

Surely, in the name of accountability and transparency Malaysians are due a clear explanation as to the links between the two men and whether Najib Razak is involved?

Appealing to greed and envy?

Appealing to greed and envy?

This is not least because of the large and controversial public loans that have been raised on behalf of Najib (who is also Finance Minister) and his 1MDB development bank, in which Jho Low is so widely reported to have been involved.

Glamourising greed?

It remains to finally point out that not everyone is likely to interpret the film as a moral lesson, in the manner apparently suggested by Rosmah Mansor.

In fact, Wolf of Wall Street is likely to be a success for the very reason that it glamourises greed, high spending, ostentation and extreme debauchery.

People will be flocking to watch Leonardo di Caprio making billions in corrupt deals and indulging in immoral behaviour, not to be taught the evils of big money but to escape into a make-believe world of unlimited wealth.

Films like this, it is widely argued, do not bring a Christmas message. To the contrary they are corrupting and they encourage more people to try their luck in the world of unscrupulous finance.

This is how the magazine GQ sums up the project:

'glamour' of greed

‘glamour’ of greed

“When Wall Street came out in 1987, it famously inspired certain people to go into banking, despite its deplorable subject matter. With that in mind, the impressionable might want to stay away from Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street: from the trailer alone, there’s enough ostentatious displays of wealth to drive another financial crisis. Strippers, dwarves, Ferraris, Jags, $26,000 meals (“it was the sides”) and enough money to throw off yachts and still have plenty spare.

The performances also look incredible, with Jonah Hill particularly eye-catching as Leonardo DiCaprio’s naïve assistant. Consider next year’s Oscar race well underway.”

Quite so. As the box office profits roll in for this production, based on greed and immorality, Red Granite Pictures will stand charged of exploiting and glamourising greed, not confronting it.

Given that ill-gotten wealth, ostentatious living and mysterious business links underpin so much of Malaysia’s ruling BN regime, it certainly all adds up as a suitable topic for Red Granite’s first major foray into the film business.

Although, that irony is doubtless entirely lost on the famously extravagant Rosmah Mansor.

With Adam Scott from Red Granite's first money spinner "Friends With Kids"

With Adam Scott from Red Granite’s first money spinner “Friends With Kids”