Beer was crucial to WeWork’s success. The commercial real estate company, one that offered communal shared office space, differentiated itself by having kegs of beer and happy hours at its many locations. By appealing to millennials in the 2010s, a cohort without many responsibilities, WeWork could emphasize the “cool” aspect of their brand. The new documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, directed by Jed Rothstein, uses thought-provoking interviews to depict the rise and fall of the cultish tech company and its enigmatic leader. It suggests that the company’s ephemeral sense of cool was much creepier and insidious than it seemed on the surface. If you could drink at the office, after all, then a CEO could figure you did not need any differentiation between your professional and personal life.
WeWork was co-founded by Adam Neumann, a tall, handsome Israeli who grew up in a kibbutz. That sense of community informed his Manhattan prototype, which was a set of redesigned floors in Midtown with lots of glass and modern furniture. Former WeWork employees and skeptical financial journalists shrewdly put the company in context of the other tech companies that skyrocketed in value during the same period: Although WeWork has a much more traditional business model, Neumann knew the right tech lingo, repeating how his company could change the world. Venture capitalists bought into it, and soon the company’s growth accelerated exponentially. By the time it was valued at tens of billions of dollars, Neumann was trying other We-branded prototypes, including a school, and his behavior was getting erratic. The film argues it was only a matter of time until the company sank.
Like many other documentary filmmakers, Rothstein avoids many flourishes. He is content to let the interviewees and archival footage speak for itself. Occasionally he throws in an obvious visual or musical cue, but for the most part, WeWork is only as interesting as the person who is speaking. Luckily, most of the interview subjects are candid or insightful enough to keep the story interesting (Neumann was not interviewed, but his pep rallies feature prominently). In the early part of the film, former employees carefully explain how the work environment veered from a community into something closer to a cult. Some of the older employees, like a real estate lawyer, had enough experience to not buy all the hype. But the younger former employees, including Neumann’s former assistant, speak about their experience with genuine pain. WeWork was more than an employer: It was an identity, and the film argues that symbiosis was toxic.
Later on, as WeWork gets ready to go public, the film’s point of view changes. Instead of regretful employees who discuss Neumann with a mix of reverence and disgust, withering journalists and professors knock the whole enterprise down a peg. There is a sting of recognition to this arc, since so many businesses use pseudo-philosophical, life-affirming babble to sell product. Many of us were duped in the past decade, although few of us as badly as the young man who attended WeWork Summer Camp parties, then lived in a “WeLive” dorm. By the end of the film, after Neumann receives a $1.7 billion buyout and his employees are left in the lurch, that employee talks about how his anger quickly shifted toward outright rage.
The outside experts are also invaluable at putting WeWork in a larger context. One of the more interesting sections involves WeWork’s flirtation with SoftBank, a Japanese investment firm that had $100 billion to spend. Its founder, Masayoshi Son, was using his fund to explore companies that would unlock the potential of artificial intelligence. It is unclear how WeWork fit into that grand scheme, although the film suggests that the practice of looking for a wildly successful company—also known as a “unicorn”—as opposed to a moderately successful company is what led to such dramatic losses. The film does not quite link this venture capital strategy to other inhumane and unsustainable labor practices common in twenty-first century capitalism, but it gets close.
In fact, the final scenes of WeWork nearly undo the whole thing. The film addresses the COVID-19 pandemic, including an awkward montage of each interviewee putting on their face mask. The film suggests that the loss of community and shared space—one that we all have collectively felt—means there is a need for something like WeWork. It’s as if Rothstein ignores what all his interviewees have been trying to say, and forgets the cyclical nature of pandemics entirely. This unnecessary footnote does not undo what precedes it, but after the pandemic dies down, future audiences will find the scene utterly superfluous. That’s the thing about time capsules: They don’t need immediacy to remain relevant.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is available to stream on Hulu starting April 2nd.