Premiering at SXSW back in March, Jed Rothstein‘s documentary narrates WeWork’s and its co-founder Adam Neumann’s complex journeys through the worlds of real estate, co-working and technology. Capturing Neumann’s fall from grace, this film illuminates some of the most hard-hitting professional and social anxieties of our age.
Founded in 2010, the company’s name, made up of “We” and “Work”, sells an irresistible combination of two dangerous promises to the young adults who make up their main clientele: the basic human desire for belonging and community, and the pressure to become productive members of a technology-driven capitalistic society.
The film opens with WeWork’s founding CEO Neumann attempting to read off a teleprompter, but trips up many times over his explanation of the “fundamental shift” taking place in the real estate industry. Described by many in the film as eloquent and overwhelmingly charismatic, Neumann’s nervousness here is alarming. There are clearly cracks in the polish, scratches on the shiny veneer of a well-packaged start-up.
As the film highlights at the start, with the best intentions, WeWork resembles a haven for the young and ambitious, allowing its occupants to break free from the shackles of corporate America and work in a collegial, fun-loving environment. Footage from the WeWork’s annual “summer camp” (in other words, a compulsory company retreat) , interspersed throughout the film, prove especially eye-opening to the enormous power of WeWork’s branding and packaging.
However, as the film ambles along with more of Neumann’s rousing speeches and chest-thumping bravado, there is a growing sense of a man’s hubris. Cracks become fault lines, with the company’s battle cry of “community” and “spirit of We” beginning to sound more unsettling rather than inspiring. The film’s interviewees – ranging from Neumann’s former assistant, to a company designer and a former WeWork member – point out a shocking lack of clarity in WeWork’s business model among senior management and the company’s inability to create economies of scale. Over the course of the documentary, it is fascinating to observe how WeWork becomes almost like a tangible, outward expression of Neumann’s persona: idealistic, flashy – but often in severe need of a healthy dose of realism.
At times, the film feels like it strains under a limited amount of scenes and archival footage it can draw from to keep up with the barrage of revelations coming through the talking head interviews. The film resorts to multiple B-roll shots of the New York cityscape, office interiors and even a short (arguably cheesy) sequence of a “unicorn” – referring to a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a business with a value of more than $1 billion. Some viewers might wonder how a fictional retelling of WeWork’s story will look like compared to a documentary – a la Facebook and The Social Network.
As the company expands to include different ventures like WeLive (a co-living space) and WeGrow (education) and later attempts to file for an Initial Public Offering (IPO), the documentary reaches its climax when the mythology of Neumann and WeWork rapidly unravels. Neumann’s lavish spending habits and WeWork’s leaking financial losses lead to heavy public criticism, with Neumann ousted from his CEO position. This fall from grace leads to several particularly poignant interviews from former employees, members and clients. It is a moment to reflect on how WeWork captures both the best and worst of humanity in the age of capitalism: how most people genuinely desire to do good work and forge deep relationships with others – yet also easily fall prey to powerful brands and the constant pressure to accrue capital and wealth.