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WeWork documentary: Delve into the spectacular fall of a hot startup

Review: Hulu's documentary about WeWork and Adam Neumann tells a crazy story, but it could have gone deeper.

WeWork's messianic co-founder Adam Neumann, the latest in a line of visionaries whose vision turned out to be a mirage. 
Jackal Pan/Visual China Group via Getty Images

The image of the 21st century tech genius entrepreneur has become so powerful everybody wants to be the next Jobs, Zuck or Musk. And if the spectacular disaster of the WeWork story tells us anything, it's that anyone, rich or poor, will lose their mind to be part of their own Silicon Valley superstar story.

New documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn charts the rise and fall of the troubled company and its magnetic co-founder Adam Neumann. Streaming on Hulu April 2, the film examines how Neumann and his company made themselves irresistible by essentially disguising themselves in the trappings of a tech brand, channeling the Silicon Valley playbook to exploit a widespread thirst for the next big business sensation. As the film's title reveals, billions of dollars were shoveled into Neumann's co-working space empire, although by focusing on the charismatic founder, the film isn't as insightful as it could have been.

The documentary briskly tells the story of how WeWork reinvented office space for freelancers and small-business folk keen to entwine creativity and productivity in the name of the all-important hustle. The film deftly unpicks the rather prosaic reality behind the gleaming coffee machines, buzzing buzzwords and omnipresent motivational slogans: WeWork was (and still is, pandemic permitting) a real estate company.

That's something the founders and employees vehemently denied, because being a real estate company isn't cool. You know what's cool? Being a billion-dollar tech company. And even if WeWork was actually built on bricks and mortar, it hid that business behind a thoroughly modern facade. In an age when technology companies ruled all, WeWork did its best to look like a tech giant.

Director Jed Rothstein begins with the 2008 financial crisis to reveal why. Amid economic disaster, tech companies seemed like a shining future, and a visionary founder with a dream pitch was a key element in any startup's story. The rock star founder archetype goes back to Thomas Edison, via Steve Jobs, but thanks to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey the modern myth of the entrepreneur spread from Silicon Valley to define the 21st template of what success looked like.

WeWork's Adam Neumann fit the bill. As recounted by a handful of insider interviews, he was a charismatic and enthusiastic young man waving his hands and spinning a seductive vision, a promise of community. But like the ill-fated Fyre Festival or fraudulent blood testing company Theranos, WeWork's founder turned out to be selling smoke and mirrors. 

This won't be news to anyone with any passing interest in the WeWork story, however. The power of a documentary is that it can show you the people involved with a directness that a written article might struggle to match. But few companies have risen and flamed out in such public fashion, with Neumann already grinning from countless articles, news reports, magazine profiles and TED talks. 

So we see a lot of Neumann in the film, but only in existing footage. WeWork's other co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, is conspicuous by his absence. Ultimately, The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is a concise summation of the facts, but a documentary about this particular debacle is crying out for fresher insight or stronger conclusions than this film manages.

The WeWork documentary covers similar ground to HBO's 2019 documentary about Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes, another founder who seduced the mega-rich by simply looking the part. But that film, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, went for the jugular with a more wide-ranging critique of the culture that enabled Holmes, indicting the American health care system and the culture of Silicon Valley with a clear-eyed scathingness that's missing from the WeWork film.

For example, the WeWork doc skates right past the number of white executives running the company, glossing over a problem big enough to merit its own documentary, the chilling and inspiring Coded Bias. And the WeWork film barely bats an eyelid at Softbank investor Masayoshi Son earmarking $100 billion for the coming of the singularity, the moment he apparently believes artificial intelligence will take over the world.

Instead of probing deeper structural issues, the WeWork film treads the same ground as previous articles and profiles recounting the lavish spending and personal eccentricities of Neumann and his straightfacedly hippy-ish wife, Rebekah. From cultlike presentations to booze-soaked parties to bizarre dreams of reinventing children's education, this extraordinary couple is fun to gawk at. But WeWork's cautionary tale illustrates more than just the amusing hubris of yet another superstar entrepreneur.

SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son

SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son wrote Adam Neumann a $4 billion dollar check. He didn't know WeWork's graphs were skewed.

Kazuhiro NOGI/AFP

Neumann's sales pitch seduced two distinct groups with the same promise. For young people disillusioned by the prospect of a corporate career, WeWork offered an incubator where you could grow into the next Zuckerberg. There's a telling moment in the film where early WeWork clients reel off the names of their companies: Brunchcritic. Youplanme. Scruff. Yoink. You can probably guess whether any of those made their founders rich.

At the other end of the scale, the same desire infected another group: the money men. Investors wanted to find the next Facebook/Apple/Uber, and WeWork fit the bill. It's astonishing seeing the sums of money thrown Neumann's way, which just shows that the very rich are no smarter and every bit as credulous or self-deluding as the people who aspire to join their ranks.