On Hulu’s new documentary and why we keep falling for guys like Adam Neumann.
Watch the new Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, and if you can keep your eyebrows from crawling off your face entirely in the first 20 minutes, my hat’s off to you.
WeWork — the now-troubled company that took out long-term leases on New York City real estate and built fun co-working office spaces for millennials — is described throughout the film in terms that border on the religious. It began as a “transparent and accountable” community, focused on “connection” and “changing the world.” Spending your days at a WeWork site was “somehow like being a member of a club, beyond just where your office building is.” Where recent college grads could go to find “purpose” and a “dream.” It was “legitimately the craziest work experience.” WeWork, and other related brands — WeLive, WeGrow — was all about “bringing people together” in the “spirit of We.”
All that language is creepy and also queasily familiar to so many millennials, brought up to believe outlandish ideals about work. I am what is often called an “elder millennial,” born in 1983, and my age cohort and I are accustomed to recitations of the myth that actually, the company that pays us money in exchange for our labor — if we’re lucky enough to evade the gig economy’s clutches — is “more like a family” than a business. (It never is.) And we were raised in a cultural landscape, as the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson says in the documentary, of “techno-optimism,” a world in which “you were rewarded if you could articulate a vision of your company that wasn’t just going to make money, it was going to change the world.”
Work is our purpose, our guiding light, where we find our meaning, where we have fun — or at least, that’s what we were supposed to believe. It’s not about work-life balance; it’s about melding your life with work. We hear Dolly Parton sing “9 to 5” and sigh wistfully. (In a dystopian twist, Dolly recorded a version of the song called “5 to 9,” an ode to the “side hustle,” for a Squarespace ad during the 2021 Super Bowl.)
And of course, work is where we make money. Gobs of it, if only we work hard enough. In the words of WeWork founder Adam Neumann: “We want to do something that actually makes the world a better place, and we want to make money doing it!” In the words of the WeWork tagline: Do What You Love. The familiar rejoinder to that phrase is implied: And love what you do.
It’s just a 21st-century utopian mantra, and for WeWork and Neumann, it worked for a while. Small wonder. Dreams of utopianism are an American tradition — maybe the American tradition, if we extend the label to those who immigrated to this continent in search of a better and more harmonious life, far away from wherever life was worse. In the 19th century, hundreds of utopian communities were founded in the US, both religious (the Shakers) and secular (the transcendentalist Brook Farm). The 20th century carried on the tradition (think of the hippies in Haight-Ashbury).
Over time, the shape has morphed but the basic principles remain the same. Groups form, often around a charismatic and idealistic leader. To some degree, they isolate themselves from the outside. They adopt ideals that run against the grain of mainstream society and try to live in harmony with one another, modeling a new way of living. Sometimes they succeed and thrive; more often, they fold or implode, scattering spectacular fireworks. More than a few times, they devolve into abusive cults (hello, Wild Wild Country).
It is fitting that some infamous 21st-century utopian communities have organized themselves around secular ideas of self-betterment and success, especially in this “techno-optimistic” world. Streaming services have made a modest cottage industry of documenting the latest developments. One recent example is Keith Raniere and NXIVM in HBO’s The Vow, about an organization (read: a cult) devoted to projecting prosperity and accomplishment. Or there’s the double whammy of the Netflix and Hulu docs centering on Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival catastrophe. That infamously botched event grew out of McFarland’s keen sense that young, aspiring professionals in New York would latch onto a vision of success that started with cocktail parties in fancy brownstones and ended with a lavish party on a Caribbean island. (Or cheese sandwiches in styrofoam takeout containers, I guess.)
It’s the Fyre Festival audience that WeWork founder Neumann targeted most aggressively. (I’d love to see the Venn diagram overlap between McFarland’s and Neumann’s acolytes.) And it’s Neumann who is the main draw of WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
The film, written and directed by Jed Rothstein, relies on familiar visual language — slow-motion shots of empty rooms, archival footage, brightly lit interviews — as it tries, a tad clumsily, to document both Neumann’s rise and fall and the company’s while exploring the kinds of people who were drawn to his vision. They are all earnest, beautiful, and around “elder millennial” in age — the kind of people who are ready to get their hands dirty and really make something of the world. They signed up to work for, or at, WeWork. They wanted to build companies while in the presence of other ambitious young people with the hope of making the world a better place. (There’s a great supercut of young founders reciting the portmanteau names of their companies in quick succession — monikers like Yoink, BrunchCritic.com, SmileBack, ScrollKit, Handshake, Scruff, and what sounded like Beer2Buzz.)
They also wanted to drink, a lot. The documentary makes a big point of this. Former WeWork lawyer Don Lewis, who a bit older than most of the interviewees, talks of kegs of beer, unlimited alcohol, appearing at 4 pm and continuing to flow until there was no one left to drink it. The annual WeWork “summer camp” for adults (yes, you read that correctly) is described mostly as a place where the booze flowed freely and founder Adam Neumann gave motivational speeches. Someone calls it “Fyre Festival gone right.”
(It’s frankly shocking, given the amount of drinking it documents, that the film contains not a single whisper of sexual assault allegations. Especially since harrowing and troubling allegations have most certainly been raised in court; allegedly one co-worker told another that it was “only a matter of time until someone gets raped” at a WeWork event.)
Some of WeWork’s clients — er, community members — took their devotion a step further, signing up to live in a “WeLive” neo-commune. Individual residents (pretty much all of whom, according to the film, were single) lived in 200-square-foot hotel-style rooms and shared kitchens, laundry, and common areas. This setup itself is not unusual in New York City, where the rent is high and friends can be hard to find if you’re new in town. But WeLive, as former resident August Urbish explains, became more like a walled-off utopian community than just a place to live. “It was weird if someone left the building,” he says.
Later, Urbish notes that after he moved into the space while also working out of a WeWork office, his “entire life was propped up by the We Community.” Friends from “the outside” would come to visit him and wouldn’t return. “Pretty quickly,” he says, “I had alienated most of my friends outside the building.” (Incidentally, or maybe not, being encouraged to isolate yourself from your friends and family is a well-established warning sign that you’ve joined a cult.)
On the one hand, this sounds a lot like college, when you’re swept up into campus life and might start to lose touch with the friends back home. On the other hand, these were adults, professionals, in their 20s and 30s. And as more time went by, the more it started to seem that Neumann and his vision were not entirely on the up-and-up, especially when his wife Rebekah (a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow and seemingly cut from the GOOP cloth) took a more active role in the company.
In the film, former WeWork staffers talk about the “propaganda” that was fed to members while everything was chaos behind the scenes. On Monday mornings, when new members were being “onboarded,” current workers occupying WeWork spaces would hear deafening chants and whoops and hollers, all about the awesomeness of WeWork. “They were ready to spend any amount of money to make themselves feel good and look good to their employees,” says Joanna Strange, who was once a product manager for the company.
Neumann cultivated an air of vaguely Muppety charisma that charmed not just people his own age, but the fabulously wealthy investors who kept the money, and alcohol, flowing freely. In normal people’s terms, Neumann fleeced them, largely by using a kooky metric called “community adjusted Ebitda” to measure WeWork’s success. (Ebitda stands for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization,” and is widely used in the world of finance; Neumann and his colleagues “adjusted” the definition to include various building- and community-level operating expenses, thereby tweaking the numbers to hide WeWork’s vast unprofitability.) He wasn’t running a real estate company, he insisted; it was much bigger than that. The company became a Silicon Valley “unicorn” — a private company valued at $1 billion — and then a unicorn many times over, eventually reaching a value of $47 billion. Investors, drawn in by other investors, just kept investing. Even the Saudi Arabian government got in on it.
Neumann was flying high on his own supply, seemingly just assuming that if he talked enough and convinced people he knew what he was doing, everything would work out. He thought he could bend reality to his will. And why shouldn’t he? Thanks to one anecdote an interviewee relates in the film, we discover that the WeWork baristas had started serving lattes when people ordered cappuccinos, and vice versa, because Neumann would order a latte but expect a cappuccino and nobody wanted to correct him. “If you tell a 30something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you,” NYU business professor Scott Galloway says.
Meanwhile, people in the WeWork community were discovering the perils of questioning the “spirit of We.” Justin Zhen, the founder of a startup called Thinknum Alternative Data that was housed in a WeWork space, talks about the day his company discovered, via public data, that the WeWork “churn rate” — that is, the number of members leaving WeWork — had increased and was accelerating. Furthermore, an internal social network, developed for use among WeWork community members and used by Neumann as a lure for investors, was barely being used. Zhen’s company posted something about it on their blog, and within hours a WeWork community manager appeared. According to Zhen, they told him he’d “violated our membership happiness clause” and had 30 minutes to pack up his company and leave the premises.
And then, just days before it planned to go public, the jig was up. As the unprofitable foundation and Neumann’s sleight of hand became clear to investors, his financial backers began to head for the hills, and he was eventually sent packing altogether. Among other developments, the S-1 form that WeWork filed with the SEC (which kicks off the IPO process) included this little ditty on the first page; someone in the documentary describes it as the writing of someone who was high:
We dedicate this
to the energy of we —
greater than any one of us
but inside each of us.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn chronicles the company’s many financial problems, investment kerfuffles, the figures lurking behind the scenes, the parties, the spiritual advisers Rebekah Neumann brought in, the oddities, and the long-reaching business consequences of Neumann’s grift. Then there’s the manipulation Neumann used to convince his employees that they were lucky to work for him, that he didn’t need them, that they had to fight to stay employed, and that they should be grateful for it.
But it’s oddly incurious about the larger cultural implications of WeWork’s downfall, or what the whole catastrophe actually means. It shares this disinterest with the recent HBO series on QAnon, The Storm, which fails to really explore why otherwise smart and curious people are drawn into what seem like obviously preposterous schemes. The only answer given is that Neumann presented a vision of coolness that resonated with millennials’ desire to find both purpose and profit in their work. (And also booze.) But it doesn’t get at why so many people find that vision attractive and credible in the first place.
I’m curious about this. I think, sometimes, that given how often we’ve heard this kind of — well, let’s be frank, bullshit — from charismatic and young (and usually male) dreamers, we’d be inoculated by now. It’s a sales pitch. They want something from you. Neumann was seeking young, ambitious, good-looking millennial startup founders to pay his company to rent space … er, excuse me, join the community. (By renting space.) As the Atlantic’s Thompson explains, “the original members weren’t ‘members’ so much as a ‘resource’ from which WeWork could extract a reputation.”
A former assistant to Neumann reflects that “I was in my mid-20s looking for purpose, and here’s this person selling this dream, and I was an easy target for that.” By the end of the film, she’s in tears, remembering what she lost when WeWork went down: “It could have come together into something beautiful.”
But could it have? Could an “authentic” community centered on a guy like Neumann, who wanted a flock who would worship him, be any good at all? Why do we keep falling for this?
If I sound annoyed, it’s because I am. I don’t fault anyone for desperately seeking purpose in life or trying to find community; that’s the most sympathetic trait imaginable, a tale as old as humanity itself. What frustrates me is that it keeps working, and taking the seekers down with it.
To me, Neumann’s language sounds most of all like a very specific variety of cool young “church planters” — mostly male pastors of mostly white and mostly conservative evangelical churches — who popped up in the late ’90s and early aughts, right when I was coming of age, and lured young people into their congregations with the promise that this wasn’t your parents’ church, that we’re not like those others. (Neumann is Israeli and grew up on a kibbutz, but his rhetoric is dead on.)
You knew it when you saw it. They had strobe lights and a coffee bar in the back, or maybe they lounged on couches or met in a bar — so countercultural! The aspiring-influencer pastor wore expensive jeans and a hipster haircut, and at Wednesday-night Bible study you might indulge in some artisanal beer (a daring move in a teetotaling church culture). When one interviewee in the documentary says that at WeWork there was excitement about “rebelling against the office culture set by the ’80s and ’90s,” the hair stood up on my neck.
Everything was about transparency and accountability, about “authentic community” and “being real,” not like those fuddy-duddy churches back home. Your friends were from church; your life revolved around it. And they were all young, good-looking, well-dressed, and smart, like you. To borrow the words of Don Lewis, the former WeWork lawyer: “People really liked the coolness of it, and that was kind of what was being sold.”
Don’t get me wrong: Some of the church leaders I remember were sincere, and some of the churches helped people and matured just fine into close-knit but welcoming groups that actually invested in serving the community around them. And the ’90s weren’t the first time a younger generation of clergy tried to reinvent their parents’ Sunday meetings — not by a long shot.
But more than a few of my acquaintances and friends got burned by those places, realizing too late that the pastor was more interested in amassing adoring followers than in leading. Sometimes that motivation “only” manifested in narcissistic behavior; sometimes it played out in far worse ways. And their followers might have been rebelling against the culture of their parents, but their rebellion was surface-level; if they dared to be “authentic” and “real” enough to question the leader, they’d find themselves on the outside.
What some experience in religious communities, others experience in secular ones. WeWork and the full “We community,” led to its demise by Neumann, is only one such case. But there are big reasons why millennials flock to these new leaders and “authentic” communities, and scholars study those reasons. Until its final five-minute stretch, the documentary doesn’t try to address them in any meaningful way. I suspect that’s because the filmmakers don’t know the reason themselves.
At the end, they give their best shot. Many of the interviews were seemingly conducted during the pandemic, and in the film’s final moments, it turns its attention to why “community” exists and how we’ve lost it during this time. But it lacks true insight. There are lots of slow-motion images of empty New York streets and interviewees donning face masks. People talk about how much we miss “community” during such an extended period of isolation, saying things like, “What are we if we don’t have each other?”
But maybe a better tack would have been to lightly interrogate the word “community,” which is so present in the film it’s practically a watermark, yet is also so overused as to be meaningless. After all, “community” is a big buzzword at Facebook, too, and on pretty much every social networking platform. And in all of Silicon Valley, and in cults like NXIVM, and in pop-up churches that meet in bars. Adam Neumann didn’t invent it. Does it mean friends? Family? People you kind of know? Drinking buddies? People you see every day? Could it be that guys like Neumann are latching onto the word because of its vagueness? Because of the malleability that allows anyone to make it mean whatever they want? And if there’s no space for arguing or questioning one supreme leader in your community, is it a community at all?
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is certainly worth watching, a cautionary tale for our time. I wish it had been more curious about the roots of the rage-inducing tale it tells. As it stands, it’s just another brick in a growing pile of examples of 21st-century techno-utopianism and the ruses we fall for over and over again.
By the way: Adam Neumann is doing fine, though he and Rebekah declined to be interviewed for the documentary. In January 2020, WeWork was still growing. In fact, the pandemic might have saved the company. As of a few days ago, it was still valued at $9 billion and going public. The Neumanns live, as the film tells us at the end, in one of the several houses they own in the New York area; Adam got a golden parachute on his way out of WeWork. In the grand American utopian tradition, it’s everyone else who got screwed.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn premiered at the virtual SXSW Film Festival in March and begins streaming on Hulu on April 2.