The perfect storm of massive hype, a charismatic figurehead, an attractive-sounding idea and tons of money thrown down a bottomless pit make for a definitive 21st-century high-financial cautionary tale in “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.” This documentary from Jed Rothstein (“The China Hustle”) charts the heady, then deadly first decade of an office space-sharing company whose much-promoted “revolutionary” idealism imploded in an old-school morass of hypocrisy, numbers shuffling and mass job/investment losses. This very entertaining postmortem debuts on Hulu April 2, two weeks after its SXSW premiere.
Framed by footage of co-founder Adam Neumann atypically fumbling through a video address in September 2019 — just before he’s to receive a giant golden parachute for leaving the floundering institution he’s offering dubious assurances about — the movie begins in earnest with a flashback to the crash of 2008. It’s noted that Wall Street’s failure then helped drive a turn toward technology as the Next Big Thing fiscal savior. (It is not noted that after the dot-com boom and bust of just a few years earlier, this déjà vu gold rush should’ve been treated with far greater skepticism.) In that climate of tech boosterism, new entrepreneurial stars were anointed, and few more aggressively promoted themselves into that role than Israeli émigré Neumann.
Tall, long-haired and effortlessly gregarious, hyper-confident as a self-help guru in nearly all the footage seen, he’s described by one observer as a professional dilettante whose initial attempts to make it big in Manhattan did not pan out. But after meeting Miguel McKelvey at a 2008 party, the two men (who significantly had both been raised in collectivist settings) got the notion of remodeling disused buildings into eco-friendly “co-working” environments that fellow entrepreneurs, small businesses and freelancers could share as renters. Initially called Green Desk, these ideas in 2010 morphed into WeWork, with the architecturally trained McKelvey making over a SoHo structure into 17 offices — albeit hardly of a suit-and-tie nature. Instead, the vibe was sunny, homey, welcoming, anti-corporate, designed to appeal to millennials largely new to the workplace. They wanted work to be “fun,” and at the same time believed they were “changing the world” for the better.
No one was better at selling that line than Neumann, seen throughout the documentary spouting a stream of inspirationally vague blather that made WeWork seem little short of the Second Coming. It wasn’t just workspace sharing; it was about “values, friendship and most importantly humanity.” The “We Revolution” was “based on community and [would] redefine success” as “the world’s first physical social network.” Plus: free beer, lavish annual partying “summer camps” and soon the glorified 24/7 dormitory housing of WeLive.
Many were delightedly seduced by this pitch, including investors and the financial press, both of which approved a novel money-spinning tactic within the hidebound universe of New York real estate. But Neumann’s messianic image seems to have gone to his head. The business began wildly overreaching, opening spaces internationally, somewhat randomly acquiring other startups, announcing its own offshoots (including forays into fitness and children’s education), all the while dodging questions about profitability. As with everything else here, these developments are amply documented in slick archival materials created within the company and avidly reporting on it from without.
WeWork’s valuation kept rising for a time (to the titular high-water mark), buoyed by cash infusions from Japanese venture capitalist Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank. Yet it was inevitable that a sobering bottom-line reality would leak out. Once SoftBank pulled the plug, a planned IPO went down in flames. It didn’t help that Neumann’s extravagance and erratic behavior had become open knowledge, that his New Age-y wife Rebekah had been made a third CEO, or that he received a $1.7 billion payout to walk away while loyal longtime staff got nothing. So much for that “we,” let alone the goal of “elevating the world’s consciousness.”
WeWork still exists, albeit in considerably downsized form, under new management. (It still hasn’t gone public.) But the aggrieved former participants who offer testimony here, including Neumann’s ex-assistant, sport the PTSD of erstwhile cult followers left only with bitter disillusionment, furious at themselves for “buying the bullshit.”
Neither Neumann, his spouse nor McKelvey is interviewed. The last (who preferred to avoid the spotlight throughout WeWork’s history, until he himself left last summer) is particularly missed, because he might’ve been able to illuminate to what extent the first was an earnest idealist who got in over his head, or alternately a sociopathic huckster. The on-screen evidence isn’t flattering: In retrospect, Neumann’s saying things like “We’re building a community that is transparent and accountable” look disingenuous at best, coming from a man who’d execute deep staff cuts after purchasing a $60 million private jet.
A measure of forgiveness is offered toward his theoretically pure, then tainted intentions at the close, when the film poignantly reaffirms the much-touted value of community — not just in our digital era but mid-pandemic, when human interaction has been so drastically reduced. It’s a touching observation, though ending on a COVID-centric montage of interviewees masking up may date “WeWork” rather quickly.
The mountain of WeWork propaganda crafted for internal, sales, investor and public media promotion provides no end of comedic irony in this skillful account. Rothstein’s engaging, fast-paced assembly weaves it all into a range of latter-day reflections that lean heavily on finance-sector journalists as well as former company associates.
Some archival pop-culture borrowings (like a clip from “Eyes Wide Shut”) and other errata add further color to a brisk progress that might easily have run longer, given numerous wacky details (many chronicled in the recent book “Billion Dollar Losers”), in-progress lawsuits and more WeWork fallout that go unmentioned here. In a first-rate overall editorial and tech package, only Jeremy Turner’s conventional synth-based score falls a little short of accentuating an irresistible train wreck of a story.