The new documentary about WeWork begins with Adam Neumann letting out a fart.
It’s 2019, and Neumann, the company’s charismatic founder and then-CEO, is recording a video for WeWork’s roadshow, the traditional presentations executives make to investors as they prepare a company to go public. Flatulence is not the only issue for Neumann. He struggles to read the teleprompter. He demands silence from everyone in the room, insisting that he would get the script right if everyone could just shut up. It’s this kind of archival footage that makes WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn worth watching.
The story of WeWork—the starry-eyed founder raised on a kibbutz, the real estate company rebranded as technology startup, the bamboozled investors, and the failed IPO—is well documented by now. Journalists covered in real time the company’s meteoric rise and, more recently, its deflation. Reeves Wiedeman’s thorough account, Billion Dollar Loser, was published in October. A second book, The Cult of We by Wall Street Journal writers Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, comes out this summer. WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork tells the same story in podcast form. Apple is now developing a WeCrashed adaptation for its streaming service, starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway. More scripted dramas are in the works, including another TV series and a movie.
Which is all to say that WeWork the documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest this week and comes out April 2 on Hulu, is not the only history of the coworking company out there, nor is it the most comprehensive. But the film offers an easy crash course in the material, especially for those who don’t like to read. What WeWork lacks in detail, it makes up for in the immediacy of its medium. Billion Dollar Loser mentions that Neumann is dyslexic; in the documentary you can instantly see his frustration with the teleprompter. Similarly, Neumann’s grandiose statements about himself and his company come off differently when you hear them straight from his mouth rather than quoted on the page.
WeWork’s director, Jed Rothstein, is best known for stories of religious terrorism and financial fraud. His portrayal of Neumann takes on similar themes of extreme greed and self-grandeur. This is not a documentary about a company, really, but a character study of its larger-than-life leader. Notably, even though WeWork has another cofounder—Miguel McKelvey, an architect who gave WeWork its signature design—he isn’t mentioned much in the film. Instead, WeWork delves into Neumann’s background, his family, and his vision.
From the get-go, WeWork was more than office space. It was “the world’s first physical social network.” It wasn’t for people at work, but for people doing what they love. Neumann is an extraordinary salesperson for his idea, both to investors and customers as well as his own employees. The documentary draws on testimonials from many former WeWorkers, who explain the attraction to the company, and to Neumann. These sit-down interviews make WeWork feel, at times, like a documentary about a cult. But they also add important nuance to a story that’s easily reduced into its more outlandish details. One of the company’s former lawyers appears onscreen to explain a few of the more legally dubious business decisions, but he also talks about how fun it was to work there. This wasn’t just a hot, new startup, it was a company with a mission—one doing nothing less than changing the world. “It wasn’t just about changing the way people work. We were going to change, ultimately, every facet of the way people interact,” Megan Mallow, Neumann’s former assistant, says in the film. “It really spoke to me.” Publicly, Neumann said that every WeWork employee was given equity. But in reality, employees were given stock options—often to compensate for low salaries—most of which ended up being worth nothing.