Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 17th, 2021
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (Jed Rothstein, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
How many charlatan-gurus have to come and go before we realize what their kind of charisma means? Whether they manage a cult, a business, a self-actualization movement, a political campaign or a pyramid scheme (or some combination of some or all of these), it seems that we as a species are prone to admire and follow those who claim they have the answers. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise, given the prevalence of mythology and religion (really the same thing) in this world, even ostensibly critical thinkers believing in a supernatural being (or beings) who guide our destiny. What’s yet another corrupt CEO compared to that metaphysical scam?
Whatever one’s feelings on our unfortunate capacity to worship magnetic leaders, here now is another profile on one such would-be god, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, from director Jed Rothstein (The China Hustle). A little too long and dense, but still engaging, the documentary follows the rise and not-quite-fall of Adam Neumann, co-founder of the titular company. He had a plan to save us all; really, though, he was just in to make millions. Make that billions.
Begun in 2010 by Neumann and Adam McKelvey, WeWork positioned itself as the answer to urban alienation by offering communal work environments dressed up in glass and steel, complete with fancy snack and coffee bars. That initial concept appealed to quite a few millennials, especially since such office spaces were cheaper than private ones, and the social-gathering atmosphere felt like an extension of the college experience. Billed as a “capitalist kibbutz” (Neumann is Israeli), WeWork quickly caught on in New York, its valuation rising in ways that led Neumann and McKelvey to consider expansion.
We don’t start there, however, but in September, 2019, with Neumann standing in front of a camera to deliver promotional platitudes about his firm, now valued at $47 billion and about to go public with an IPO. He keeps failing to complete his sentences, and seems ill at ease, which we will soon learn is not his usual modus operandi. Something is amiss. As it turns out, that IPO does not go as hoped, with WeWork’s worth dropping in 6 weeks to the point of near-bankruptcy. What happened? That, indeed, is the question, and the movie.
The WeWork model was to lease – never own – real estate, renovate and chop it up, and then rent out small units of it. That’s all. There’s nothing particularly innovative in the concept. But add more than a touch of new-age mysticism to it, including the tag line “the next revolution is going to be the We revolution,” then target individuals looking for connection, and it might just catch on. And there is no harm in that.
Neumann and McKelvey next pivoted to WeLive housing units, building on their success to create a community of folks who were always together. This is where it becomes cult-like (including a described scene straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut). As we hear the many subjects discuss their experiences and the reality distortion they felt around Neumann, it becomes clear that somewhere along the line the CEO began to believe his own press clippings. The $4 billion investment the company received from SoftBank at a crucial juncture surely didn’t help tamp down increasingly bloated notions of self-importance. Nor did Neumann’s wife, Rebekah (née Paltrow and a cousin to Gwyneth). She and her husband seemed to encourage the one and the other towards ever greater folly.
Which brings us back to the beginning, now the end, by which time we have come to know well the many people who bought into the WeWork narrative, enjoyed it before it shifted into a money-making venture for Neumann, and are here to recount their cautionary tales. The company, having replaced its out-of-control leader (via a very golden parachute), has managed (so far) to avoid bankruptcy. Perhaps it is the future, after all. Or maybe it’s a just real-estate venture, which is fine, in and of itself. Just don’t rip people off in the process of enriching yourself.