Getting freelancers to split a workspace and convincing them that they’re part of an exclusive club is a neat trick, but it’s only the first flicker of gaslighting visible in “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” a documentary that suggests that WeWork — the tech start-up, or is it a real-estate start-up? — owed its growth less to the sharing economy than to shared delusion.
On why what now looks like a tenuous, bluster-based business model would appeal to Wall Street, the director, Jed Rothstein, spends less time than he should. Instead, the movie relays a fast-paced, entertaining saga of WeWork’s relentless self-selling and what it portrays as a cultlike corporate atmosphere. (One interviewee, August Urbish, who worked at WeWork and lived in WeLive — a similar venture for short-term, semi-communal apartment rentals — says his “entire life was being propped up by the We community.”)
Rothstein’s documentary never captures the appeal of the obnoxious guru at its center, Adam Neumann, a co-founder of WeWork who stepped down as chief executive in 2019. A title card says he declined to participate, but from what’s onscreen, he speaks (and maybe thinks) exclusively in motivational sound bites. Person after person testifies to his charisma, but it’s hard to understand how he persuaded people to join the company, rather than hit him in the head with a designer chair.
The film is sharper when its subjects describe the financial maneuvering that enabled WeWork’s rise, which, as explained here, involved redefining measures of profitability into meaninglessness. The movie overextends itself, too, by implying, in its final beat, that, folly or not, WeWork’s vision of human interaction holds promise for a post-lockdown world.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. Watch on Hulu.