By Lizzie Widdicombem, The New Yorker
The pandemic has really done a number on our sense of time. The documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” which was released last week, on Hulu, spans 2008 to 2019, a period that technically ended just eighteen months ago. But, at times, watching the documentary feels like watching an account of a distant era—you might as well have turned on Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” or Matt Tyrnauer’s “Studio 54.” WeWork, in case you’ve forgotten, was the startup that pioneered the boom of co-working—that distinctly pre-covid-19 phenomenon in which freelancers and entrepreneurs paid to spend the workday in shared office spaces, bathing in one anothers’ respiratory droplets. What began as a Brooklyn desk-renting outfit metastasized into Manhattan’s biggest office tenant, reaching a private-market valuation of forty-seven billion dollars, before the whole thing crumpled in a failed I.P.O. attempt.
The story of WeWork’s rise and fall is the story of the past decade: a strange time when greed, technology worship, and low interest rates combined to produce throngs of supposedly billion-dollar startups, known as “unicorns.” But it is also the story of one man, Adam Neumann, an Israeli immigrant with flowing, dark hair and a habit of walking around barefoot in public. It’s clear that, had Neumann been born a few centuries earlier, he would have made an amazing prophet. But, in 2010, in New York City, he became the next best thing: a founder. The documentary suggests that the two aren’t so different: footage of old-timey faith healers is juxtaposed with scenes of Neumann preaching to starry-eyed millennials. He anoints them, “You’re a creator! And you’re a creator! And I know you’re a creator!”
Jed Rothstein, who directed the documentary, is no stranger to religious fervor. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker is known for projects such as “Killing in the Name,” about Al Qaeda, and “God’s Next Army,” about fundamentalist Christian college students. In “WeWork,” Rothstein sets his sights on the Silicon Valley-inspired prosperity gospel that defines our current era: the dream of “disrupting” something and becoming a billionaire. It’s a shallow ideology, and, for the most part, Rothstein keeps things light. He sets a brisk pace, works in funny movie references—“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Animal House”—and gently mocks his subjects with mischievous string music. This isn’t epic, Ken Burns-style storytelling. But it’s a good yarn.