Hot Docs Review: The WeWork Documentary Is the Ultimate Tech-Douche Hate-Watch Directed by Jed Rothstein
Starring Adam Neumann, Rebekah Neumann
Published Apr 28, 2021I have a friend who worked for a small tech startup based out of a WeWork shared office space. A few times, before Blue Jays games, I would swing by his office and we would pre-drink from the free beer taps in the communal kitchen. There was no security and, before 6 p.m., no apparent restrictions on public access to the office. As far as I could tell, anyone off the street could have walked in and poured themselves a free beer.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that operating an open bar in downtown Toronto probably isn't a very smart business model, so it wasn't all that surprising when then company's value plummeted in 2019. This multi-billion-dollar rise and precipitous fall make for a fascinating hate-watch on WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
Owner Adam Neumann combines the deranged hubris of Fyre Festival, the sinister self-improvement philosophy of Scientology, and the sketchy economics of the dot-com bubble. In the company's ruinous 2019 IPO (which is business speak for a stock market launch when a company goes public), it claimed, "Our mission is to elevate the world's consciousness." Riiight.
Director Jed Rothstein's film plays out much like one of the many recent documentaries about cults: there's the idealistic beginnings, a messianic leader with wild claims about changing the world, a humiliating fall from grace, and the pervading sense of "how did so many people fall for this absolute nonsense?"
When WeWork's office space model expands to WeLive (a communal home that separates residents from the outside world) and WeGrow (a school that attempts to mould young minds), things seem like they're on the verge of getting downright menacing. Adam Neumann's wife Rebekah is Gwenyth Paltrow's cousin, and her kooky new age philosophies are somehow even more untrustworthy than goop.
The film's use of vintage B-roll is a little hokey and the COVID-themed finale clunks like a brick, but the interviews — including former WeWork employees, journalists and and financial experts — paint a fascinating picture of the arrogance of a tech-bro who thought he was starting a revolution with his overvalued office space. If anything, Rothstein is a little too kind; the film ends with some employees reflecting on the best parts about WeWork, suggesting that the company's absurd vision of community actually had some merit.
Ultimately, it's Neumann who gets the last laugh, as he's ousted from the company and gets a 10-figure payout. For all the investors and employees who got suckered in by Neumann's self-aggrandizing promise of a better world, the closest they will get to justice is having the founder exposed for what he is. And it sucks for me, too — where am I supposed to go for free beer now?
Hot Docs runs online from April 29 to May 9, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website. (Hulu)