Betting on Zero: The Big Short, by Alexander Miller
If the breadth of stylistic variances among documentary filmmakers is any indication of the genre’s range and scope, it almost feels like anything can be a subject for a solid documentary. Sometimes it’s a question of “is the subject a match for the director?” After all, let’s face it: Alex Gibney couldn’t make In Jackson Heights and Frederick Wiseman isn’t the expressionistic whistle-blower responsible for Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
While Ted Braun and his film Betting on Zero have a directive agenda in this densely layered expose on Herbalife; but as the layers kept pulling away and presenting new issues it made me wonder, is there such thing as too much subject for a documentary?
Betting on Zero introduces us to its principal player Bill Ackman, who proclaims that the corporation Herbalife is nothing more than a pyramid scheme and his hedge fund shorted Herbalife’s shares in a campaign to bankrupt the company. We learn about their business infrastructure, the people involved in their slick, cultish campaign and their targeting low-income areas, Latino communities, burdening many and leaving more in debt. Betting on Zero takes some turns in showing varied facets of the controversy: there’s a group led by activist Julie Contreras, Ackman’s media campaign against Herbalife, footage of Herbalife meetings and interviews with their CEO Michael O. Johnson, former president of the Walt Disney Company.
Things take an interesting direction when Ackman’s adversary, Carl Icahn (now President Trump’s advisor), steps in to rattle his cage by buying Herbalife stock, boosting the company’s clout mostly because of an old grudge between theses heavy hitters in the world of big financing.
Betting on Zero adopts a new tone when it’s no longer a battle of ideals, but clash of the financial egos when Icahn and Ackman go toe to toe. Ackman’s squeaky clean image is already questioned. After all, “idealist hedge fund investor” aren’t exactly words we commonly associate with each other. But the grudge Icahn dredges up reinforces our hereditary knowledge: there are no clean hands from Wall Street.
From the outset, Betting on Zero starts off as a “Good vs. Evil/David and Goliath” story; but this dissolution reminds us that delineated moralism is no longer relevant in our cutthroat contemporary landscape. Well, if things are so bad that we turn to hedge fund investors for help against companies that promote healthy dieting I guess we’re in a sad state. Mind you most of this was shot before the outcome of the last election.
Ackman is introduced to us as an idealist stockbroker; a “Mr. Smith Goes to Wall Street” type, he presents himself well but how much are we expected to trust a proclaimed “activist investor”?
We see Herbalife operating as a behemoth conglomerate and the worst part is that it functions due to the ill-gotten gains of targeting low-income areas and Latin American immigrants. The grassroots campaign lead by Julie Contreras (she and other victimized, swindled Latinx filed a class action lawsuit) should be a pivotal moment in Betting on Zero but the busybody nature of the film diverts the settlement into second tier status. Once they crunch the numbers and reach a verdict, we learn Herbalife’s paltry payoff is indicative of there being no hope for the working poor. The digression of capital gain and exploitation of lower class immigrants is what fuels their cultish business model. Their forked tongue ethics and absence of moral compass is self-evident, and the point of the film seems to take the relatively simple message of “pyramid scams are rubbish” and turn that into a billboard plot point. While I was asking myself “sure, Herbalife has scam written all over it, so, why would anyone fall for it?”
Of course, we’re sympathetic to those conned by the fine print schemes of this conglomerate but at which point do we account this to personal responsibility? At which point I realized that there’s an evolution on both sides of the wooden nickel – when your phone rings thanks to a prerecorded call they’re no longer telemarketing solicitations, they’re presenting you with a “business opportunity.” Pyramid schemes are dismissive of the term because they’re “multi-level marketing strategies” – to quote the wise Slim Charles from the HBO series The Wire, “The game’s the same, just got more fierce.”
From the outset, we can’t help but wonder how and why so much affection is engendered for the crusading investor Ackman, such idealism coming in the result of shorting a company’s stock. It almost feels like a rebuttal to the impression of Wall Street finance left by The Big Short, especially in Ackman’s thoroughly flattering description of what shorting entails.
Of course, the derivative feel of Betting on Zero becomes a red flag in itself, effective in portraying the poor ethics of Herbalife and its victims. It navigates through various facets but all signs seem to point toward Ackman. It’s self-conscious to a fault at this point, almost as if director Braun felt he was lending too much time into Ackman’s pursuit by mixing up the narrative with backstories and sidewinding b-stories. Of course, Ackman’s interests are called into question; he claims his proceeds from the short will be donated to charities in what feels like a reflexive argument, but the self-congratulatory tone of the film can’t shake. Betting on Zero seems to vilify Ackman, and the cost of that vilification is my ability to trust the filmmakers, a subject this specific can’t be a coincidence for the subject, and the filmmakers, Andrew Quinlan columnist for Townhall.com has downright labeled the documentary as “fake news”.
This documentary wields a degree of potency but a lack of focus and pushes us in the wrong direction. For the amount of time, we spend on the targeted Latin Americans is shifted back to Ackman’s role as savior, this ebb and flow felt like a diversionary tactic that left that deflated the dramatic emphasis of the film. Some of the more resonant moments occurred after the documentary learning that Herbalife allegedly bought 173 tickets to prevent people from seeing the films screening, and a scathingly funny episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Multilevel Marketing was very much informative.
The irony of this documentary being so unbiased is tantamount to Herbalife’s shilling their crappy merchandise and ripping people off; Betting on Zero is a perfect example of good intentions marred by misguided justification and skewed execution. Worst of all, the attention Herbalife has garnered has boosted their stock and the FTC’s investigation has made their shares rise. Seems like Ackman’s short backfired and so did Braun’s documentary.