The 2008 financial crisis nearly pummelled the global economy into oblivion. In the US, the federal government stepped in to stop the bleeding. The Obama administration brought the financial sector back from the brink with massive stimulus packages. After narrowly avoiding a second great depression, you would think that the government would put some checks and balances on ruthless corporations. That’s why the flagrant capitalistic hedonism depicted in WeWork feels so jarring.
Director Jed Rothstein’s latest documentary, WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, examines the rise and fall of a company called WeWork (think of it as Uber but for office space). Fuelled by its charismatic leader, WeWork transformed from a promising start-up to a venture capital unicorn with a jaw-dropping $47 billion valuation. But the story doesn’t end there. WeWork’s questionable business practices and misleading accounting inflated its worth, making it only a matter of time until the bubble burst. And did it ever burst, leading to a colossal corporate flameout.
Most of the doc focuses on WeWork’s leader Adam Neumann. Neumann comes off as clever, charming and full of energy. His bold and colourful personality would make him the life of any party and you get the sense that he’s not happy unless he’s the centre of attention. While Neumann seems quippy and laidback, I kept picking up on a manipulative used-car salesman vibe. Maybe his charismatic prowess doesn’t translate on-screen, but I never felt the appeal of his “we’re going to change the world” schtick. It’s telling that Neumann, a guy who loves the spotlight, refused to appear in the doc.
WeWork was never a revolutionary concept—it’s a real estate company at its core—and yet Neumann recruited his devoted followers by pitching them a revolutionary movement. He sold a vision of the company that was about more than furthering folks’ careers. WeWork strived to reshape the workforce according to its leader’s vision.
The doc works best when it examines the company’s mystique and why it attracted so many enthusiastic young people. Rothstein interviews lawyers, financial reporters, and former WeWork staff to help us understand Neumann’s rockstar appeal.
First off, WeWork mislead employees about how much equity they had in the company. People wanted to invest in it because they expected to get rich off stock options when WeWork went public. People thought they were getting in on the ground floor of the next Facebook or Google.
Getting rich inspires people to do some wild things. However, it doesn’t explain people’s fervent devotion to this company and its branching endeavours. WeLive, for example, offered onsite living quarters billed as co-living spaces where folks rubbed elbows with fellow entrepreneurs 24-7. WeWork also sent employees to mandatory three-day retreats and made sure they attended seminars by shackling them with tracking bracelets. Neumann’s gift for telling everyone what they want to hear helped the company thrive amidst a series of poor decisions.
The 2008 financial crisis left people in desperate need of hope. Big business is fuelled by self-interest, and lawmakers showed no interest in reigning in corporate America. For those outside the financial sector, earning high wages became less important than repairing unchecked capitalism’s economic, environmental, and social damage. For a brief time, tech companies seemed like the best way to turn things around fast.
It’s easy to lie to someone when you tell them what they want to hear. WeWork took a message of hope and change and slapped it on top of a real estate scheme and called it revolutionary. The promise of joining a revolution was like catnip for those entering the workforce soon after the 2008 financial disaster. People desperately wanted to feel like they were driving change and building a better tomorrow. WeWork looked like the best way to make it happen.
The doc covers a lot of ground recounting WeWork’s meteoric rise. My main gripe is that the film glosses over a few critical areas. This meaty story would work well chopped up into a docuseries—Rothstein could spend an entire episode on the company’s side projects or the employees minted as C”WE”Os.
Filmmakers always want to leave their audience wanting more. In the case of a documentary, the film must answer the viewer’s biggest questions. Although WeWork kept me entertained, it left me with a few too many questions afterwards. The 105-minute doc doesn’t provide the deepest dive into this financial calamity but it does serve as an excellent starting point to entice you down the WeWork fiasco rabbit hole.
SXSW ran from March 16–20, 2021. For more SXSW coverage, click here.