Turning rebellion into money

The 2021 SXSW Film Fest offers two features on messianic men

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A still from 'WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn'

What is it about messianic men and the chaos they cause? They are almost always false prophets, yet time and time again, we fall for their charm, for their snake oil. You probably don’t have to think long to conjure one, but if you’re drawing a blank, try these two on for size: Adam Neumann and Michael James Brody Jr.

Both Neumann and Brody are the subjects of two new documentaries that premiered at 2021’s South By Southwest Film Festival — which wrapped on March 20 — and both play beautifully into psychologist Timothy Levine’s truth-default theory. But after you watch these movies, dupe-default might be a better fit.

Let’s start with Neumann’s doc, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, from Jed Rothstein, covering the rapid rise and fall of Neumann, an Israeli entrepreneur who lived in a variety of countries before settling in New York City at the age of 23. Drawing off the city’s energy and the millennial generation coming into the workforce, Neumann and partner Miguel McKelvey created WeWork, a coworking space Neumann said would change the nature of work. Capitalizing on a generation’s need to find a calling, WeWork provided purpose and a sense of belonging. To an outsider, WeWork looked an awful lot like a cult — a multi-billion-dollar cult with no ceiling. But Neumann’s inspiration became imposition: on his partners, his investors, his employees, everyone. And quicker than you can say IPO, he was out. The making and breaking took less than a decade.

‘Dear Mr. Brody’

Brody’s story is nowhere near as long and probably less familiar, even if you were around when it played out. That’s what makes Dear Mr. Brody such an effective watch; it’s a true story so forgotten it almost feels false — which director Keith Maitland leans into, crafting a documentary that plays like a mystery.

The less you know about Dear Mr. Brody, the better, but here are the basics: In October 1969, Brody turned 21 and inherited his fortune as the oleomargarine heir — an unlimited sum, Brody told reporters. Three months later, Brody announced he was giving it all away to anyone who asked. All they had to do was contact him.

And contact him they did. From there, things get interesting. Like Neumann, Brody was a captivating figure: young and wealthy, tall and skinny, with a shaggy head of hair. Ecstatic devotion sprung up around them, and both offered their believers something more than money. For Neumann, it was purpose; for Brody, it was love — that, and a lot of greenbacks.

Of the two, Dear Mr. Brody is the better movie — WeWork is a decent doc about a fascinating story with an atrocious ending — but both hammer the point home: There are an awful lot of lost souls adrift in this world. And when a Brody or a Neumann comes along with promises too good to be true, far too many go down with them.

WeWork will be available to stream on Hulu starting April 2. Dear Mr. Brody has not yet acquired distribution but will no doubt play the 2021 festival circuit until it is.  

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