Writer-director Cassius Michael Kim’s investigative documentary lays out the stark corruption, shameless grift and tainted glamour that swirled around the recent 1MDB scandal. If you don’t know anything about it, this film offers an exemplary walkthrough of the facts, but in a nutshell, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was a sovereign wealth fund set up by former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak in order to finance investment in his country, alleviating its widespread poverty. But in what has come to be described by the FBI as the “largest kleptocracy case to date”, Najib and his associate, Malaysian-Chinese businessman Jho Low, are accused of embezzling millions of dollars into their own pockets. (Najib has been convicted and jailed; Jho Low denies the charges and is the titular man on the run.)
Others who got rich quick or at the very least acted as enablers to this grift included two Goldman Sachs employees, middlemen working for the Saudi investors in the fund, and scores of other financial institutions whose logos feature in a graphic animation in the film. (Look out for Coutts, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and many others.)
The tawdriest aspect, however, and the one that will make this compelling to a wider audience not so interested in financial shenanigans, is the account of Jho Low’s extensive partying with celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton, Jamie Foxx, Miranda Kerr and more – many of whom, it turns out, were paid to appear. In a supreme final irony, it turns out that the crooks were funnelling cash out of 1MDB to fund The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s fittingly ambivalent study of financial corruption in New York.
None of these celebrities agreed to be interviewed here or even returned Kim’s calls, but somehow he managed to persuade the since disgraced Najib to speak on camera a year or so ago when he was trying to clear his name. Elsewhere, interviews with various journalists, local law enforcers, politicians and FBI agents lay out the nitty-gritty of the story. Lashings of onscreen text spell out the statistics and figures, which is helpful. The caricatures of the various grifters are distractingly tacky, though, and somewhat lower the film’s tone.