The new documentary about WeWork starts off 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 give to investors as they prepare a company to go public. Flatulence isn’t the only problem for Neumann. He’s having trouble reading the teleprompter. He demands silence from everyone in the room, insisting that he would do the right script if everyone could be quiet. It is this kind of archive footage that makes WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $ 47 Billion Unicorn worth watching.
The story of WeWork – the star-eyed kibbutz-raised founder, the real estate company renamed tech startup, embarrassed investors, and the IPO failed– is well documented now. Journalists have covered in real time the meteoric rise of the company and, more recently, its deflation. Detailed account by Reeves Wiedeman, Losing a billion dollars, was released in October. A second book, The worship of us by the Wall Street newspaper writers Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, coming out this summer. WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork tells the same story in podcast form. Apple is currently developing a We crushed adaptation for its streaming service, with Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway. Other scripted dramas are in the works, including another TV series and a movie.
Which is all to say that We work the documentary, which premiered on South by Southwest this week and releases April 2 on Hulu, is not the coworking company’s only story, nor the most comprehensive. But the film offers a crash course in the material, especially for those who don’t like to read. What We work lack of details, it compensates in the immediacy of its medium. Losing a billion dollars mentions that Neumann is dyslexic; in the documentary, you can instantly see his frustration with the teleprompter. Likewise, Neumann’s grandiose statements about himself and his company are different when you hear them straight out of his mouth rather than quoted on the page.
WeWork’s director, Jed Rothstein, is best known for his stories of religious terrorism and financial fraud. His portrayal of Neumann addresses similar themes of extreme greed and self-worth. It’s not really a documentary about a company, but a larger than life character study of its leader. Notably, even though WeWork has another co-founder – Miguel McKelvey, an architect who gave WeWork his signature – he isn’t mentioned much in the film. Instead, We work delves into Neumann’s background, family and vision.
From the start, WeWork was more than an office space. It was “the world’s first physical social network”. It was not for People at work, but for people do what they like. Neumann is an extraordinary salesperson for his idea, both to investors and clients as well as to his own employees. The documentary draws on testimonials from many former WeWorkers, who explain the appeal of the company and Neumann. These sit-down interviews make We work feel, at times, like a documentary about a cult. But they also add an important nuance to a story that easily boils down to its most extravagant details. One of the company’s former lawyers appears onscreen to explain some of the more legally questionable business decisions, but he also explains how fun it was to work there. It wasn’t just a new start-up, it was a company with a mission – a company that did nothing less than change the world. “It wasn’t just about changing the way people work. We were going to ultimately change every facet of the way people interact, ”says Megan Mallow, Neumann’s former assistant, in the film. “It really spoke to me.” Publicly, Neumann has said every WeWork employee has a right to fairness. But in reality, employees were given stock options – often to compensate for low wages – most of which ended up being worthless.