WeWork is somewhat limited in focus and doesn’t always plumb deeply, but remains an intermittently fascinating portrait of a conman and his grift.
When applying for jobs in the 21st century, what do you look for? There are the obvious things — a good salary, quick commute, opportunities for advancement — but in an increasingly gig-based economy, none of those are guaranteed. Instead, millennials are being told to look elsewhere for workplace benefits. A decent salary is good, but wouldn’t you rather have a great workplace culture? Work-life balance is important, but when you’re truly passionate, why not work hard and play hard instead? Does working slavish hours matter if the company you work for has the potential to change the world? WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, directed by Jed Rothstein, depicts what happens when this philosophy reaches a breaking point. Entrepreneur Adam Neumann and his company WeWork perfected the modern capitalist grift of taking an age-old idea, wrapping it in progressive language and sleek graphic design, and selling it to us all over again — in this case, landlordry. Neumann’s business of sub-letting renovated office buildings out to any freelancer, start-up, or company who could afford them initially seemed primed to become the Uber of office space, boasting a $16 billion valuation, before tanking on the stock market due to that classic business whoopsie of failing to actually make any profit.
Perhaps the reason WeWork is so effective as a documentary is because it admits its fascination with leading man Adam Neumann, endlessly extolling his charisma and determination in the same vein as true-crime documentaries about cult leaders. Instead of trying to get to the root of his psyche or intentions, or even offering any wholesale condemnation, Rothstein opts for the “portrait of the artist as a conman” route that is gaining popularity when applied to profiles of figures like Billy McFarland or Anna Delvey. The documentary doesn’t overly concern itself with the morals of Neumann’s actions or the nuances of the system that allowed Neumann’s con to flourish, but instead shows us a man who simply rises to meet a moment. It just so happens that that moment is so pathologically lonely and indulgent of would-be corporate messiahs that it allows a cultish atmosphere to take hold, with both customers and employees cheerfully drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid.
For all its strengths, WeWork might leave a bitter taste in the mouth for some. Not only do its last few moments scan as somewhat trite, but the film mostly refuses to acknowledge the systems that allowed WeWork and its blanket toxicity to thrive. Real people are profoundly affected by these corrupting economic factors, and so the documentary’s occasional admiration for Neumann grates. Still, if indirectly, WeWork proves an incisive look into, and example of, the 21st-century’s reinvigorated fascination with conmen and their grifts, even as, at times, the documentary itself falls for the con.
You can currently stream Jed Rothstein’s WeWork: The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn on Hulu.