In February 2012 the actor Michael Douglas – who played the villain Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street – appeared in a video for the FBI, asking the public to report securities fraud. “Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of financial markets,” he explained. “If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
The problem was, in the long boom after the 2008 crash, everything was too good to be true. It wasn’t just that financial markets were being hoodwinked by a few criminals: a new appetite for risk had taken over, and it was systemic. Between 2009 and 2019, the amount of money invested by venture capital firms in the US each year more than quintupled, from $26.6bn to $135.6bn, while the money raised from IPOs (initial public offerings, when companies start selling shares) more than doubled. This money was directed at people who were prepared to tell stories that were not just too good to be true, but too good to be even remotely credible: people who promised to build cities on Mars, to end all disease, to live forever – and to make trillions in the process.
It’s open for debate whether this decade of exuberance was good for the wider economy, but one thing is now apparent: it makes for great TV. WeCrashed tells the story of the spectacular rise of the shared-office company WeWork, which briefly became the biggest commercial tenant in London, New York and many other cities around the world and was valued at $47bn before revelations about its finances and the conduct of its enigmatic CEO, Adam Neumann, caused its attempted IPO to collapse in a blaze of acrimony.
The big joke in WeCrashed is how little work Neumann (played by Jared Leto) and his wife, Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), do. Adam spends much of his time drinking, partying, surfing or taking ice baths in his office. The company he claims to embody is entirely built by others, who put in long hours and are expected to join him in his revels. One of the series’ best moments comes when a group of sober people in business attire arrive at the office and start doing actual work: they are naturally treated with great suspicion.
The real WeWork wasn’t such a crazy idea. Steve Jobs had built the most successful company on Earth by persuading people that they wanted a computer – previously thought of as a piece of office equipment – in their home, and eventually their pocket. Adam Neumann’s vision was to take this further, to get people to accept the office as their primary social space, their true home.
A lot of other people had a similar vision. Many start-up tech companies had been founded in “hacker spaces” or co-working buildings that did away with the fusty ephemera of the traditional office and offered to make up for long hours with beer, pizza and a sense of belonging. Many companies were already heading in this direction; as with Uber’s takeover of the taxi market, this was a shift in something fairly prosaic that venture capital saw as a potential revolution, if it was led by the right lunatic.
The Neumanns attracted so much investment precisely because they were so wacky, because they insisted that their mission was to “elevate the world’s consciousness”, because Adam declared that he was going to give a home to every orphan and become president of the world. The megalomania, greed and self-absorption that make WeCrashed so much fun were part of the package.
Adam Neumann – who stepped down as WeWork’s CEO after the failed IPO – is probably very pleased that by his early 40s his career has already been so remarkable that he is being portrayed by Jared Leto in a big-budget drama series. Rebekah may not be so pleased: Anne Hathaway lays out her meanness and naivety with devastating care, never letting her become a joke, making her at least as grasping and feckless and responsible for the whole debacle as her husband. The viewer is left feeling that Hathaway may have inhabited the character of Rebekah Neumann more authentically than the woman herself.
What’s most striking about WeCrashed, however, is that it isn’t really a cautionary tale – or at least, not yet. The opportunity to learn from the Neumanns’ hubris was removed a few months later by the arrival of a global pandemic and the injection of trillions of dollars of government money into financial markets. The risk appetite that had previously belonged to venture capitalists spread to millions of retail investors, who gambled their stimulus cheques on whatever looked mad enough: apparently doomed enterprises such as Hertz, AMC and Gamestop, cryptocurrencies that were only ever meant to be a joke, or just whatever Elon Musk was tweeting. Analysts say investment has reached “peak stupid”, and there are strong indications that the bubble has burst, but markets don’t typically pop in one go. The true lesson of WeCrashed is that things can always get dumber, and that for many people Adam Neumann will end up, like Gordon Gekko, not as a villain but a role model.