The new documentary about WeWork begins with Adam Neumann letting out a fart.
It’s 2019, and Neumann, the company’s charismatic founder and then-CEO, is recording a video for WeWork’s roadshow, the traditional presentations executives make to investors as they prepare a company to go public. Flatulence is not the only issue for Neumann. He struggles to read the teleprompter. He demands silence from everyone in the room, insisting that he would get the script right if everyone could just shut up. It’s this kind of archival footage that makes WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn worth watching.
The story of WeWork—the starry-eyed founder raised on a kibbutz, the real estate company rebranded as technology startup, the bamboozled investors, and the failed IPO—is well documented by now. Journalists covered in real time the company’s meteoric rise and, more recently, its deflation. Reeves Wiedeman’s thorough account, Billion Dollar Loser, was published in October. A second book, The Cult of We by Wall Street Journal writers Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, comes out this summer. WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork tells the same story in podcast form. Apple is now developing a WeCrashed adaptation for its streaming service, starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway. More scripted dramas are in the works, including another TV series and a movie.
Which is all to say that WeWork the documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest this week and comes out April 2 on Hulu, is not the only history of the coworking company out there, nor is it the most comprehensive. But the film offers an easy crash course in the material, especially for those who don’t like to read. What WeWork lacks in detail, it makes up for in the immediacy of its medium. Billion Dollar Loser mentions that Neumann is dyslexic; in the documentary you can instantly see his frustration with the teleprompter. Similarly, Neumann’s grandiose statements about himself and his company come off differently when you hear them straight from his mouth rather than quoted on the page.
WeWork’s director, Jed Rothstein, is best known for stories of religious terrorism and financial fraud. His portrayal of Neumann takes on similar themes of extreme greed and self-grandeur. This is not a documentary about a company, really, but a character study of its larger-than-life leader. Notably, even though WeWork has another cofounder—Miguel McKelvey, an architect who gave WeWork its signature design—he isn’t mentioned much in the film. Instead, WeWork delves into Neumann’s background, his family, and his vision.
From the get-go, WeWork was more than office space. It was “the world’s first physical social network.” It wasn’t for people at work, but for people doing what they love. Neumann is an extraordinary salesperson for his idea, both to investors and customers as well as his own employees. The documentary draws on testimonials from many former WeWorkers, who explain the attraction to the company, and to Neumann. These sit-down interviews make WeWork feel, at times, like a documentary about a cult. But they also add important nuance to a story that’s easily reduced into its more outlandish details. One of the company’s former lawyers appears onscreen to explain a few of the more legally dubious business decisions, but he also talks about how fun it was to work there. This wasn’t just a hot, new startup, it was a company with a mission—one doing nothing less than changing the world. “It wasn’t just about changing the way people work. We were going to change, ultimately, every facet of the way people interact,” Megan Mallow, Neumann’s former assistant, says in the film. “It really spoke to me.” Publicly, Neumann said that every WeWork employee was given equity. But in reality, employees were given stock options—often to compensate for low salaries—most of which ended up being worth nothing.
WeWork uses an impressive array of video footage to showcase Neumann as a charismatic leader and an incredible salesperson. There’s Neumann addressing his employees at various company gatherings, which look more like music festivals than corporate events. There’s Neumann ripping shots at Summer Camp, the mandatory and alcohol-soaked employee retreat. There’s Neumann recording an early pitch to investors and touring a camera crew around a new office, the paint on the walls barely dry. Many of these scenes will feel familiar to people who followed the WeWork saga or who read Billion Dollar Loser. Still, seeing them stitched together over 100 minutes brings the story to life in a new way.
There are also glimpses of his wife, Rebekah Neumann, an actress who took on more control over WeWork as the company grew. If Adam is the star of the WeWork show, then Rebekah is the director, tweaking the company’s vision and casting it in different lights. In one clip, Rebekah tells a reporter about WeGrow, the company’s short-lived $36,000-a-year private preschool. “The mission of WeGrow—and quite honestly, the collective We that we’re all living under—is to elevate the world’s consciousness,” she says. And then, as if to clarify: “We’re unleashing every human’s superpowers and expanding happiness.”
WeWork grows like a balloon, and all that air leads it to pop. By the end of the film, WeWork has filed to go public with one of the most insane S1s ever, which exposes the company’s faulty business model. Neumann has repeatedly said the company is profitable, but actually it’s hemorrhaging money. The churn rate for tenants is extraordinary, and the cost of buying new buildings doesn’t add up. The private-market valuation—$47 billion at its peak, as the documentary’s full title reflects—no longer makes any sense, and WeWork’s largest investor, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, expresses doubts. The empire crumbles. Neumann is offered a package worth $1.7 billion to leave the company. His out-of-control vision proves to be WeWork’s downfall. As one former WeWork member recalls after overhearing Neumann spiel to investors, “At a certain point, you’re just like, ‘Shut the fuck up, man.’ It got really draining and really exhausting to constantly be a part of this thing.”
As Neumann prepares his road show video, the last big, and ultimately doomed, push to sell his creation, he asks about the positioning of the camera, if he should look to the side or face it straight on. Neumann does that a lot throughout WeWork: Should I look this way or that way? (The filmmakers did not sit down with Neumann, but the documentary features footage from many journalists’ interviews with the CEO throughout WeWork’s rise.) At first, it seems like a normal thing to do in a televised interview. By the end, it seems more emblematic of Neumann’s preoccupation with how he appears to others—and the filmmakers’ preoccupation with how Neumann behaves behind the scenes. Those bits of the footage bring new dimension to the WeWork story and help create a stronger sense of who Neumann is.
But as former employees point out in the film, that’s only one part of the story. “When you focus the story on Adam,” says Margarita Kelrikh, a former WeWork lawyer, “you miss how many people worked really, really hard to bring this impossible vision to life, who got nothing.”
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