‘WeWork: or The Making And Breaking Of A $47 Billion Unicorn’ Entertains But Ignores White Men Charisma—SXSW Review

WeWork founder Adam Neumann

WeWork: or The Making And Breaking Of A $47 Billion Unicorn, written and directed by Jed Rothstein, looks at the rise and fall of the WeWork business. They dealt in real estate—but to be clear they, or rather the founder Adam Neumann—adamantly refutes this label. But they were still about renting spaces that focused more on transparency and communal vibes. They wanted to be more than the boxed enclosures prevalent in corporate businesses.

It focuses on Adam and his charisma that dupes masses of individuals into following his vision of the future. Various former WeWork lawyers, assistants, and staff talk about their experiences with Adam. They cover that, the WeWork environment, and when the bloom was off the rose. However, it ignores the greatest factor that Adam Neumann has—that of being white and/or a man. WeWork has the same corporate mentality of greed and “work till you drop”. But since it is a white man rebranding it, the similarities are ignored.

The WeWork documentary is rife with human need and hubris. All of them talk about the way Adam moved them to envision a sense of belonging, community, and sharing. The portrayal of the millennial generation is that of a group desperate to belong and buck the previous generations’ creations. However, this sentiment is no more unique than other generations of hippies, hipsters, and so on. It’s a generational pastime to rebel against the older generation and strive to carve out something brighter and better. 

Inclusivity Is Not Exclusivity Nor Is Utopia Kin To Capitalism

Where this falters is in the conceit and need for financial greed exhibited by many especially Adam, and the drive for acceptance through exclusivity. They define special by belonging to something elite. Often, the focus for a lot of these businesses and communities isn’t belonging. Belonging accepts a diverse range of people that clearly WeWork lacked at the top. They use the popular buzzwords that grab millennial’s attention, then tell them they’re working for something bigger than themselves. In Adam Neumann’s words WeWork “redefines success”. Yet, the culture and environment are still the same as is the ultimate goal: monetary. The only difference is their work environment looks more inviting. 

Some of the most toxic parts of corporate—working exorbitant hours—was still a focus of WeWork and Adam Neumann. The cosmetic appearance enchants enough people into buying this dream of change. It does not matter that it is built on the same corporate foundational structures. No one stops to question their dream to “do good” beyond the utopian vibe and aesthetic. They were still tying utopian ideals with capitalistic achievements. They ignore the diametrically opposing goals of capitalism and utopia. Capitalism must have someone on the bottom, someone suffering and struggling while those on top “succeed”. Capitalism also slants based on race, skin color, gender identities, etc. They all talk about doing something life-changing, but can never explain what the “vision” is; however, they can explain they thought they’d become millionaires. If their goal and Adam’s were the same on some level, were they really duped? 

The “Charisma” Is Just White Man Privilege

The aspect of white man mediocrity repackaging the same items and selling it as something better would have been a fascinating exploration in this documentary.

Another reason so many were duped was the belief that the white man knows best. White men are the problem-solvers for everything. Inclusion, diversity, world hunger need fixing then talk to a white guy to fix it. This ignores that they are the biggest perpetrators of the issues. Many of those discussing issues with WeWork and the godlike mentality of Adam are white and/or a man. As such, they are unable or unwilling to make the clear connection. The charisma is just the continued privilege white men receive. An older white man encapsulates what he thinks is Adam Neumann’s issue as, “if you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you”. But never shines the light brightly on himself.

He breaks up what makes Adam Neumann charismatic—race and gender—and focuses on age and gender instead. This allows him to create a certain distance from Adam. It’s a continued facet of the white patriarchal, capitalistic system that people will wonder how a man such as Adam rose so prominently while ignoring the obvious physical characteristics and system that uplifts them. If they did own up to that, they would also have to look at themselves. As such, many of them label it an age issue; the youth exploited because they know no better. However, the likelihood of this level of success with anyone who wasn’t a white man is the unicorn. 

The aspect of white man mediocrity repackaging the same items and selling it as something better would’ve been a fascinating exploration in this documentary. Unfortunately, as this is discussed through individuals recounting their experiences, it’s impossible to ask them to reflect on issues they rarely confront head-on. To see one of them talk about a “strange, gratuitous reality distortion moment around Adam” with the cappuccino/latte switcheroo, without seeing the parallels existing in this white supremacist society demonstrates how deep-rooted it is. 

Entertaining, But Doesn’t Stand Out

Some will get angry watching this documentary, but others will be entertained. Because the red flags for us—like seeing goopy Gwyneth Paltrow—would be enough to have us go in the opposite direction. Community has ebbs and flows because individuals have ebbs and flows, yet corporations still try to create a forced community that to a trained eye feels uncomfortable and inauthentic. WeWork is no different than any other capitalistic venture using woke language. 

The documentary is entertaining but it exhibits the same blind spots often prevalent in a lot of these documentaries that discuss the rise and fall of a white man’s business, often because those behind the camera have those same blind spots. Often, so-called “charisma” is just our conditioning on how to regard a white man with a vision, and little else. So WeWork: or The Making And Breaking Of A $47 Billion Unicorn doesn’t rise beyond another hilarious, unsurprising documentary. The names change but the people remain the same. 

Feature photo courtesy of Hulu

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