Tech companies love to take things that already exist perfectly, be they taxis, bicycles, apartments, radio, food delivery services, consolidate them into one easy-to-use package, dress them up in inspirational language, and pass them off as the most novel idea of all time. For example, co-working spaces have existed since the 1990s, but nobody was able to capitalize upon them and turn them into a mode of aspirational living quite like Adam Neumann, the charismatic co-founder of WeWork.
His genius was the ability to take a simple concept, a real estate company that sub-leases space to individuals, and turn it into a type of community, supposedly inspired by the kibbutz he grew up in as a young Israeli. But behind this inspirational thinking is a man ridden with paradoxes, his full complexity eliding the many subjects — former employees, journalists and economists — that make up the wordily title of We Work: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
Neumann, along with his wife — a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow who is as strange as he is — refused to take part in the documentary, despite being the centre of the film’s gravity. With staring eyes, chiselled face and long-flowing hair, archive footage shows him radiating charisma, able to convince anyone and everyone, from lowly employees to major investors, to follow him on his dream. But beneath the smoke and mirrors, is a company with some very dodgy dealings, WeWork following the template (both in title and form) of “tell-all” docs such as Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley — which all start with the grand dream before showing the multiple layers of bullshit underneath. And like both movies, they don’t tell us much that isn’t already available to read online, but make for entertaining synopses nonetheless.
While watching the documentary, it struck me that nearly the entire film could’ve been packaged as a podcast. Heavy on dialogue, news-clippings and light incidental music, it’s a movie you listen to far more than watch. More visual uses of the documentary form — such as stock footage of a storm to signal trouble ahead, the endless shots of empty offices, and the odd infographic — don’t really bolster the narrative in any significant way, filling space while the talking-heads tell us the real story.
The images that linger are the shots of WeWork’s creepy work all-weekend retreats, which offer great live music and plentiful drinks on the one hand, but also endless monologues, bonding exercises and inspirational guff on the other. In one cult-like image, employees sit on the floor with their eyes closed, being forced to hold one another’s hands and repeat cringe-y phrases. This is not so much a company as a cult, WeWork showing the toxic dangers that can lie behind any company that considers itself either a “family” or a “community”, often buzzwords used to manipulate employees into working much harder then they should. Hopefully, WeWork is the last “tech” — if you can call it one — company to fool the market this hard ever again. That said, they’re still in business, so this ride is unlikely to end any time soon.
WeWork plays in the Documentary Spotlight Section of the SXSW Film Festival, running between 16-20 March.