Quick show of hands, then. Who in the English-speaking world doesn’t know that Herbalife, the weight loss/money making “multilevel marketing” company, is a scam?
I mean, exposes by “Nightline,” CBS News and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” among others, Federal investigations, periodic crackdowns and simple common sense have given away this hustle for most people.
Those stories, save for Oliver’s take-down, pre-date hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s efforts to short-sell the company out of business. But Ackman’s involvement, starting in 2012, gave this tale a somewhat tarnished “white knight.” Here was a Wall Street insider willing to gamble $1 billion that this company, which makes almost all its money off suckers it lures into becoming buy-in distributors, would be outed, routed and put out of business by the Feds.
Ted Braun’s “Betting on Zero” follows Ackman and the years-long crusade by him and many of those rooked by Herbalife to get something like justice. The victims want restitution, and Ackman, a market manipulator claiming the moral high ground, wants to make money for his clients when Herbalife goes bust.
To Ackman, the multi-billion dollar international “health and wealth” company is “The best-managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world.” It’s a “wealth transfer scheme” designed to lure desperate people in with the prospect of a “business in a box,” only to have them buying and re-selling overpriced products that nobody wants, forcing them to lure in friends and relatives to create a new lower level of the pyramid for the tiny number of people at the top to prey upon.
Braun’s film follows Ackman from his cocky announcement to the world what a scummy operation he and his researchers have found Herbalife to be, into the wars that followed. Former Disney bigwig Michael O. Johnson was CEO as Herbalife grew into a multi-national success story, and got rich off the powdered shakes. He’s not taking this “outing” by Ackman lying down.
And being a hedge fund manager, Ackman has rivals and has made enemies. One of them is Donald Trump’s economic adviser, Wall Street heavyweight Carl Icahn.
When Icahn threw his cash behind Herbalife in a personal vendetta against Ackman, he put Ackman on the defensive and added desperation to his efforts to get the Feds to crack down on Herbalife.
Braun also focuses on the people often lost in this headline grabbing scuffle, outraged, ripped-off and wronged Latino distributors, and their de facto leader, Julie Contreras. Her group waves “Herbalies” signs in front of corporate cheer-leading conventions, gets on the news and keeps the fight alive while an amoral Wall Street rallies behind the company.
But in a country having its “immigrants are bad” moment, who will care?
It’s repetitive and jargon-filled and a little too long. But “Zero” is still a fascinating story, troubling and chilling when you realize that the people in charge of the government now are the very people we need government to protect us from — scammers, frauds, “wealth re-distribution” hustlers and their protectors.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Bill Ackman, Julie Contreras, Carl Icahn, Micahel O. Johnson
Credits:Written and directed by Ted Braun. A FilmBuff release.
Running time: 1:44