Nathan Abrams reviews a new documentary film about Jewish entrepreneur Adam Neumann and his co-working startup, WeWork.
The billion-dollar start-up, WeWork, founded by Jewish entrepreneur Adam Neumann, which I wrote about here has been inspiring some interest of late. First, there was a book, then a podcast and now there is a documentary film with another book and even a television series based on the podcast on the way.
WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, written and directed by Jed Rothstein, charts the rise and fall of the co-working company started by the charismatic Israeli Adam Neumann, who was forced out of the company.
The documentary opens with Adam attempting to record a video presentation before the company’s disastrous IPO in 2019. He is smartly dressed, open-necked white shirt, black suit but is fluffing his lines, a sign of what is to come. At one point, he ostentatiously lifts his leg and farts loudly. It sets the tone but reminds me of Mel Brooks’ line, ‘farts will be heard’.
The documentary presents Adam as a visionary for the messianic ages. He reels off a string of snappy soundbites. He wants to ‘change the world’, moving it from the iGeneration to the WeGeneration (ultimately it became the AdamGeneration). A child of the social experiment, the kibbutz, he argues how ‘We need to create a capitalistic kibbutz’. This was not so unusual among Silicon Valley start-ups as Jewish author Anna Wiener reveals in the memoir of her time there, Uncanny Valley.
The documentary gives us some limited background on Adam. He is described as just another hustling immigrant but there is very little information on what drives him beyond greed. In terms of influences, it is explained that because he grew up with only one television channel in Israel, Adam watched a lot of movies like Animal House and The Gong Show which influenced WeWork’s culture of weekend-long parties, endlessly flowing and free alcohol on tap in its offices and coworking spaces, and the mantra-like call and response chanting of ‘We’ and ‘Work’, even as its renters were trying to work. The image was everything.
At some point, though, WeWork moved beyond a billion-dollar unicorn to something different. ‘Is this some kind of cult?’ one interviewee reports being asked. This section is intercut with clips from Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut when Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) stumbles upon a masked orgy. Another interviewee even says he got an invite to an Eyes Wide Shut type party. It was to announce WeWork’s new initiative: WeLive communal living
How did WeWork go from a start-up to a cult? is a question the film never manages to answer. It points towards Adam’s wife, Rebekah. Adam had untapped raw potential — in her words, he was ‘full of shit’ –until he met her. She helped to groom and shape him into the entrepreneur he became. She brought a New Age vibe and injected constant doses of spiritualism into the company. Adam shunted his co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, aside as he wanted the spotlight for himself and his wife. Suddenly Rebekah became part of the founding mythos of the company.
What the documentary does not reveal, however, was that this was the result of her joining the Kabbalah Centre which she encouraged Adam to attend as well. It is where Adam met early investors like Ashton Kutcher. None of this is alluded to other than a glimpse of a red string bracelet on Adam’s wrist. In fact, Rothstein only alludes to the Dalai Lama as if he were Rebekah’s spiritual advisor rather than a publicity stunt to give the company legitimacy much as another company cum sex cult, NXIVM did. What is it with Jews and the Dalai Lama I am now wondering? Overall, the documentary is disappointingly reticent about Adam’s Jewishness and the role it played in WeWork’s rise and fall.
Although Adam was a graduate of the Israeli Naval Academy, he never led from the front. He expected his employees to behave in ways that he did not. He wanted them to economise while he lavished funds on his office, private jets, family and homes. He told them to ‘work until you drop’ while he took a month-long surfing vacation in the Maldives. It was ‘we’ for everybody except Adam.
The documentary paints a picture of consensual hallucination. One former worker is even suffering from PTSD undergoing therapy because of her time there. Employees thought they owned equity, but they did not or, if they did, they were not going to get the million-dollar pay-outs they thought they were. The company was mired in chaos and lack of organisation — more Animal House than Maxwell House. Adam ignored the company’s expenses and outgoings. In a series of metaphors, interviewees documented how WeWork was flushing cash down the toilet, haemorrhaging cash, burning through $100m dollars a week. One might as well crash two private jets into a mountain a week, one particularly wry interviewer comments.
But through financial engineering and gimmicky, WeWork turned itself from a lossmaking to a profitable company helped by lying to their gullible investors who kept pushing the value up which speaks to the gifts of Adam Neumann. It became, as a result, the most overvalued private company in the world.
Rothstein’s WeWork concludes that while Adam may have started out with good intentions, there was a change in him caused by money blindness. He was ‘the asshole that wrecked it.’ WeWork became more about the business than the community it was creating. Adam believed his own bullshit and the company, and its employees suffered while he walked away with a vast golden handshake. To conclude with the words of Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU, who is interviewed for the film: ‘If you tell a thirty-something he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.’