The forensic breakdown of corporate greed may be the defining artwork of this historical moment.
From the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries of 2019 to the multiple filmed and written explorations of overweening founders like Adam Neumann (WeWork) and Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), there’s a sort of giddy weightlessness in watching the mighty brought low, and seeing the plebes who worked for them elevated, for a moment, to star-witness status. At a moment in which inequality seems more pronounced, and more top-of-mind, than ever in Americans’ lifetimes, there’s potential for real analysis of the chaos of the global economy in each of these stories — but what people are tuning in for is the carnage.
So it is with “LuLaRich,” a new Amazon Prime Video series that makes a worthy addition to its genre. It serves up both a sense of what multilevel marketing does to those who participate in it and a dose of human weirdness in the form of two founders in the process of falling, or rising again.
DeAnne and Mark Stidham, the founders of the women’s apparel company LuLaRoe, found more success selling a dream than running a consistent and easily scalable business. Their LuLaRoe garments — named for three of their granddaughters and famed for comfort and colorful flair — were noticed and loved because of the manner in which they were sold, direct to consumer from representatives who leveraged personal relationships or social-media microfame. This structure, which the Washington State Attorney General, in a settled lawsuit, alleged was a pyramid scheme, made the couple at the top very rich. It also wrecked lives and relationships along the way.
Not that the Stidhams seem to mind, or notice. They, along with various former and current associates, are among those who speak to the camera. And what strikes viewers in the one interview the founding pair granted this project is their serene, unruffled attitude of being the recipients of great blessings, even after we already know there are deep cracks in the business’s foundation. “We are storytellers,” says Mark, with the sonorous assurance of a tent-revival preacher. “That’s how the business grew.” The narrative management continues even in crisis mode: Asked how people found the money to do the high-priced initial spend to become LuLaRoe vendors, DeAnne says, with bland faux-sympathy, “We’ve always, since the beginning, said don’t get into debt, please!” A bit of callousness begins to creep in as she says dismissively, “People make cookies, they do all kinds of things, i don’t know” — this before we get the revelation that LuLaRoe advised its representatives to sell their breast milk to make the money required to get involved. The pair seem to incriminate themselves whenever they speak, revealing a toxic mix of ego, carelessness, and lack of concern for those they’ve harmed; it’s a portrait of the founder mentality turned rotten.
There was, potentially, great money to be made for others within the organization, but this documentary unfussily lays out that it tended to come through the process of drawing in referrals, rather than through the retail operation. For the Stidhams, this looks like evangelizing and spreading the good word; for those beneath them, it’s a grind. Top performers, who had been leveraging person-to-person charisma and salesmanship, were forced to play a punishing and unpleasant volume game. And for those at the bottom, the company’s increased bulk, and the cluelessness of the Stidham family members studded throughout top leadership, meant that an already tenuous corporate grip on quality control and service completely collapsed. Meanwhile, bizarre culture issues — including forced-march boat trips for top salespeople, at their own expense, and allegations that DeAnne pressured underlings into getting invasive gastric surgery in Mexico — served as a reminder that there are major downsides to working for founders who are freewheeling and low on boundaries.
Filmmakers Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason were, previously, the makers of “Fyre Fraud,” the better of the two films about the Bahamas-set concert spectacular gone bust. There, they set Fyre Festival firmly within the context of the post-2008 American economy, a scheme gone wrong by mere chance in a climate that tends to reward grifting. For Fyre, this worked as a way to reframe a story that had already been wildly covered and metabolized by the media, but the LuLaRoe story feels fresher and less picked-over. There’s little overt philosophizing about what it all means in “LuLaRich,” which works to the project’s benefit.
After all, the company that the Stidhams made serves as rich enough metaphor all by itself. They have the bearing of the founders who’ve made great American corporations, but were selling just an image and some scraps, a feeling of inclusion and belonging tied to strips of soft fabric. Quality control at LuLaRoe fell off over time, such that, deep into the company’s chaotic era, garments tended to rip apart at the seams. (Get it?) The Stidhams have no meaningful response to the allegations they’re presented with by the filmmakers; Mark, at one point, jokes that his mouth is filling with blood, because he’s biting his tongue. This project, showing us the perspectives and stories of so many and presenting in response the founders’ oddity and silence, takes advantage of LuLaRoe’s bottom-heavy structure: The very nature of a pyramid — if indeed LuLaRoe was one — is that there are many, many more voices of the dispossessed coming from below than voices of authority from above.
What makes “LuLaRich” most interesting is its position relative to the history of LuLaRoe. Theranos collapsed, and Holmes is on trial; Fyre Festival’s impresario Billy McFarland is in prison; WeWork still exists, but its own reckless founder stepped down as chief executive in 2019. While the Stidhams have paid a settlement, LuLaRoe remains very much a going concern. The most punishing costs have been borne by the associates, whose stories we hear — time spent away from family on a doomed project, divorce, even bankruptcy. These stories, so marginal to the Stidhams’ ambitions, won’t stop the business from rolling on. But they’re central to a documentary that comes into focus as a clear-eyed accounting of an economy that seems to have an unsentimental tendency to encourage endless hustle, the perfect setting for a powerful narrative.
“LuLaRich” launches on Amazon Prime Video Friday, Sept. 10.