What if capitalism, but cool? Gussied up with buzz words like “calling” and “community,” then drenched in floods of free cappuccinos and cocktails, this was essentially the pitch of WeWork, a so-called tech company that was really a newfangled way to rent office space. Yet arrogant co-founder Adam Neumann made it seem like much, much more. It was a lifestyle. It was an echelon to aspire to. It was “the world’s first physical social network,” whatever that means. But most importantly, it was a wildly overvalued company that had financial journalists scratching their heads; then, it was a disaster that hurt plenty, but not its long-locked guru with the enchanting patter. All of this is laid out in Jed Rothstein’s documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
This should be an exciting story, one of an American Dream gone wrong, or one of a deceitful Svengali, who charms us even as we know he’s a scoundrel. It could have been a story of how late-stage capitalism is a swindle, no matter how many stylish shared spaces you create. Instead, Rothstein creates a documentary that feels little more than an explanation, dispassionate or at most bemused.
WeWork offers interviews with a collection of employees burned by the big-talking boss who led them down a path of ruin. Assistants, lawyers, managers, and members all recount how Neumann had this energy about him that drew you in. They recall in wonder how he’d deliver speeches to huge audiences, who’d cheer raucously as if at a sporting event. They speak in hushed awe about the charisma he had, and how it won them over to drop their leases, work long hours, and dedicate their lives to his vision. This feels familiar. It’s the same kind of talk you hear about Fyre Fest conman Billy MacFarland, or Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, or NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere. All of whom have scored docs of late, and all of whom—Neumann included—don’t seem as remotely alluring as their reputations insist.
Perhaps it’s the advantage of hindsight, as we come in knowing this guy’s not the grinning Messiah who’ll save Millennials from the grind of American capitalism. We are on alert for his bullshit, and the red flags are plentiful. He dodges reporters’ very-straightforward questions about the business, its goals, and financials. He promises fortune and a vocation without being clear on what the cost might be. He repeats the narrative that small businesses sharing an open-office plan will create a community that works TOGETHER toward riches…but gives zero examples of how. There’s no point in the doc where WeWork seems like the utopia he promises, so the dramatic tension comes from watching those he duped retrace their paths from dreams to disillusionment. A low-key dread hangs over all the heyday stories of wild summer camp “ragers” and the WeLive spinoff, which is basically overpriced dorm-living for beautiful influencers.
Rothstein doesn’t have access to Neumann or his controversial wife Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, who—yes—is related to Lady GOOP herself and shares her affinity for white lady nonsense. So these central figures become mythic, represented only through others’ stories, photo shoots, and various promotional footage that has to do some serious heavy lifting. For instance, to show how Neumann was losing faith in the company’s success, a long sequence is devoted to a shoot day where he was off his game and flubbed his lines a lot. It’s a dull detour of a gawky man rambling buzz words and real-estate lingo. This footage is also how Rothstein starts his doc, introducing us to Neumann as a flustered fool. That might explain why Neumann’s allure remains a mystery, even as others assure us it was very real and powerful!
Perhaps the problem is that while WeWork is full of former colleagues and reporters talking about Neumann, it’s achingly light on insight or illustrative stories. I think back to Netflix’s Fyre, where producer Andy King confessed how Billy MacFarland had insisted a blow job bribe might be necessary to get access to the water bottles needed for the fest. It was a wild story that became an instant meme, thanks to King’s tongue-in-cheek humor. But more than that, it was a clear illustration of how out-of-hand the planning for the music festival had gotten. WeWork has no story that can compete. There are bewildered listings of facts about $60 million private planes, garish parties, and WeLive renters being treated like props who must pose on command anytime an investor drops by. But exciting stories are few and far between. The best of the bunch is about a mislabeled latte, which isn’t the stuff of great cocktail party anecdotes.
Rothstein effectively lays out the timeline of WeWork’s meteoric rise and calamitous fall, but doesn’t fill in the gaps with anything near as rich as a “$47 billion unicorn” premise suggests. There are no jaw-dropping revelations, just the same-old same-old of a charismatic cult leader who lies, swindles, and keeps smiling. There’s no exploration of the story’s bigger themes. Rothstein doesn’t dig into what the WeWork’s rise-and-fall tells us about America, Capitalism, cults, or Millennials. It is a missed opportunity, as WeWork built its brand around romanticizing the hustle economy that ruthlessly blurs the lines between work/life balance. The doc never even shows an interest in how that hustle is a rebellion against the fear of Boomer standards of office 9-to-5s at a job that pays the bills but doesn’t feed your soul. There’s a lack of context that then gives way to a lot of questions. Was it a cult? Was it an idea that could have worked were it not for Neumann’s hubris? Was it always a scam?
Instead of searching for the answers to these questions, Rothstein sets them up, then dodges them with the clumsy confidence of Neumann. Perhaps the WeWork documentarian doesn’t have the distance to determine a thesis, as the final chapter of WeWork the company hasn’t yet been written. I’d say he lacks the courage of its convictions, but Rothstein seems to waffle throughout on what he thinks of Neumann and WeWork. The only clear villain is Rebekah, painted as a Lady Macbeth of the tone-deaf socialite set. So, after explaining a lot of financial information with bland graphics, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn trudges awkwardly into a final thought set against a dreary pandemic-era New York City. Forget the questions. Stop looking for answers. Rothstein cuts short the discussion to grasp at sentiment, giving the last word to a heartbroken WeWorker, who longs now—more than ever—for the community that was so much more than a buzzword. While she’s sincere, this conclusion feels cheap. It plays a plague-stricken metropolis as a prop, posed like some starry-eyed influencer over a chic sectional couch. Then, it’s not so much like an ending as much as quitting. It’s as if Rothstein is throwing up his hands, with a shrug. So, in the end, a doc that could be fascinating, that should be insightful, and that needs to be exciting is simply informative, shallow, and listless.
“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” streams Friday on Hulu.