“Betting on Zero” is not here to make you a believer. In fact, if there’s anything that Ted Braun’s examination of the meteoric, global rise of Herbalife shows, it’s that belief in other individuals is a dangerous task, whether that person is promising financial windfall, long-term stability or thorough justice. It may not be entirely inspiring, but “Betting on Zero” captures the everyone-for-themselves desperation that would make any wronged individual furious, be they jilted employee or frustrated stockholder.
Ever since the prevalence of Amway, multi-level marketing (MLM) firms have long been the subject of alternating popularity and concern. Companies that base their economic model on recruitment, rather than the maintenance and consumption of inventory, leave in their wake a bevy of unsatisfied former employees, some of whom are highlighted in the “Betting on Zero” clips used in a popular segment last fall on “Last Week Tonight.”
Braun’s documentary trades a wider view of MLMs for a more focused evaluation of international supplement company Herbalife. To tackle this case study, Braun enlists the opinions of hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, a clean-cut crusader against Herbalife’s business practices. Ackman’s opening interviews portray him as a potential hero whistleblower, complete with full-frame close ups in his talking head interview. He even gets the full backstage “Birdman” treatment in the film’s opening shot, following him from his chauffeured SUV all the way through the bowels of the theater before a supposed giant-slaying, smoking gun talk on Herbalife’s unsustainable business practices.
But as the pool of perspectives deepens to include financial industry experts and more impartial journalists, Ackman becomes less of an altruistic figure and someone shown as having the same propensity for self-promotion as those he’s railing against. In saving its perspective twist for Ackman rather than Herbalife itself, Braun makes a sneaky point about the power of primacy and the allure of a squeaky clean image.
The biggest takeaway from “Betting on Zero” is the overriding, overarching power of messaging. It doesn’t matter what media narratives might come your way or what potential loss in stock might be on the horizon. As long as a company or a political candidate or a new friend with a business opportunity is able to whip up enough supporters into a frenzy, sometimes that’s all that’s needed to sustain a firm grasp on the levers of control.
Still, there is no love lost here for Herbalife’s approach to perpetuating their brand outreach, both in the United States and abroad. Between the war of words exchanged among Ackman and erstwhile Herbalife CEO (and ex-Disney exec) Michael Johnson, Braun also looks at those at the bottom of this alleged predatory structure. Through the eyes of Julie Contreras and a group of Chicago-based, anti-Herbalife activists, “Betting on Zero” shows that, even though the economic devastation in their community is real, their message won’t get far without the right amplification.
Though Braun is able to address these three narrative threads, he uses some sloppy, conventional documentary connective tissue. There’s only so many times that you can see basic animation of a flurry of hundred dollar bills floating through space, multiple colors of Herbalife product being poured into a clear glass or the same basic illustration of a human pyramid. In addition, Braun’s voiceover is listless and furtively used to fill in gaps that archival and firsthand footage can’t fit in.
The juiciest string in this long saga is the public spat between Ackman and fellow investor Carl Icahn. It’s a feud of wealth and influence that could easily sustain its own film, and given the amount of attention and money poured into this fight, it seems to be the one thread that proved most influential on this public struggle of combating narratives.
The handful of minutes the film spends on the Icahn/Ackman feud is the pivot point for the entire film. What Braun only tacitly acknowledges is that the surrounding hour and a half worth of loss, deception and anger is almost rendered moot by the fact that this episode almost exclusively comes down to the winner in this bizarre billionaire infighting feud. When Contreras’ legal bid faces a fatal snag at the end of the film, “Betting on Zero” tries to salvage a moral victory from their efforts. But like so many other recent stories where disadvantaged victims fail to recoup their losses, the story always goes back to the petty whims of those in the upper echelons of finance and influence.
Despite any design shortcomings or less than optimal narrative structure, Braun just seems to have stumbled on this story at an inopportune time. The film closes with an adept intercut montage of Johnson and Ackman delivering speeches to their respective captive audiences (the former to an arena of jubilant, would-be millionaires, the latter to a church filled with those who were sold the same elusive dream). But as the image fades to black, we get the true Herbalife fallout in a short series of paragraphs. What Braun does get across in “Betting on Zero” is that, even with the full view of the story, this is one where hardly anyone looks like a winner.
“Betting on Zero” opens in select cities on Friday, March 17.