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Charming people can get away with anything and money makes no sense. That’s the basic takeaway of WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (we can just call it the WeWork documentary), a documentary that takes a look at the rapid rise and even faster fall of WeWork, a company that is either an industry shattering startup or a giant real estate con depending on whether or not you’re talking about before or after its fall from grace. It’s a look at how one (or maybe two) guys conned the richest people in the world into giving him lots of money but more so it’s about the thin line between con and dream, cult and culture, and fantasy and innovation.
Through a series of talking heads, footage from the time, and clips to create impactful montages director Jed Rothstein takes a look at how a company with no profits could raise $47 billion under the leadership of its charming founder Adam Neumann. It is an interesting story in and of itself and often that’s all you need for a good documentary if you can put it together well. Rothstein has a good story and he almost sticks the latter part too.
WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Director: Jed Rothstein
Release Date: April 2
If you worked or turned the news on anytime in the late 2010s then you’ve heard of WeWork. The company was the first of a new wave of “innovative” tech companies to crop up after the crash in 2008 as tech took charge and venture capitalism became a massive part of industry growth. WeWork is an office rental space that was marketed and geared towards start-ups and Millenials, providing a shared workspace for small companies. However, WeWork promoted itself as much more as it was publicly lead by Neumann, who believed (or wanted investors and the world to believe) that WeWork could change how… we worked. The idea is that by bringing people together people would collaborate, grow, and support each other in a kind of business comune.
The company shot up, much in thanks to the charm of Neumann, who turned WeWork into a bit of a cultural cult with massive company parties, a strong cultural message, and even a spinoff business called WeLive, where mostly WeWork employees lived together in a stylish commune-style complex. From how the documentary tells the story it got pretty creepy as Neumann and his wife turned WeWork into something of a hippie paradise mixed with the kind of corporate spending and flamboyance that only $47 billion can buy you. It borders on a cult, something routinely pointed out by the wide variety of people that are interviewed for the documentary.
This is probably the film’s strongest suit. Rothstein has collected a fantastic swarth of engaging interviews with people connected to WeWork in a wide variety of ways, though sadly no executives participated. He interweaves ex-lawyers, financial experts, former employees, and outsiders into a tapestry of how WeWork rose and fell so spectacularly. Mixed is plenty of stock footage from WeWork events, recordings, and interviews throughout the life of the company. Rothstein also can’t help inserting some of his own commentary with archival clips used in montages to highlight what the talking heads are saying. At one point close-ups of people putting food in their mouth are juxtaposed with interviews to emphasize the film’s message.
Where the documentary does stumble is piecing together the story as coherently as possible. While you’re never lost in the storyline it often feels a little jumbled with events appearing out of order. The movie has a lot to cover and sometimes it dashes along from an interesting topic a bit too quickly. You’re left wondering about some details here and there as the movie moves on without you.
This is especially true with WeWork’s co-founder Miguel McKelvey, who is barely mentioned or appears in the documentary. While it is true the McKelvey took a backseat to Nueamann’s flamboyant public persona and fundraising he’s obviously still an integral part of the WeWork story but appears to be entirely ignored. It feels like a gaping hole in a documentary about WeWork or even one that was solely about Neumann.
The WeWork documentary is intriguing simply by the fact that its subject is intriguing. Rothstein, however, also does an incredible job of building the story behind the film. While the movie seems to have some glaring spots missing it does do a good job of breaking down an immensely complex situation into something digestible. The film works.