If you hit your local multiplex starving for a stirring, gripping plot, these days your best play is to avoid the main auditoriums and check out what’s playing on the smaller screens—or seek out your nearest indie theater. That’s often where you’ll find some of the best storytelling around, because that’s where they’re showing documentaries. Betting On Zero, directed by Ted Braun (Darfur Now), is a well-reasoned and calmly presented big-business exposé that leaves you wanting to storm out of the theater, looking to take names.
Like its big-star cinematic cousin The Big Short (read our review here), its underlying message is loud, clear and damning. The 104-minute doc takes on Herbalife, the multibillion dollar multilevel marketing company that hawks pricy weight-loss shakes and health supplements, often to the world’s more vulnerable populations. The outfit thrives on recruitment and replication: workaday “distributors” get persuaded to buy-in $3,000 worth or more in expensive product at a “discount,” and then they’re trained to interest friends, relatives and strangers to buy the product, become distributors themselves and go out and attract more and more distributors. So well-intentioned folks, looking to make better lives for themselves and their families, shell out too much money for product they can’t unload, and get left on the hook for thousands of dollars. Rinse and repeat exponentially, making Herbalife a descendent of companies like Amway. Herbalife thrives despite investigations by the Feds, monitoring, being featured on Nightline and a scalding rant from John Oliver.
The movie follows hedge fund manager and Wall Street big leaguer Bill Ackman who, in 2012, launched a $1 billion effort to expose Herbalife’s business practices as nothing more than a “wealth transfer scheme,” while investing in stocks that would rise as Herbalife’s fortunes fell. The big reveal would surely ruin their stock; if the company were to go belly up, Ackman and his clients would rake in tons of profit. As the CEO of Pershing Square Capital hedge fund, Ackman maybe doesn’t always come off as the noblest of crusaders, but he’s dogged as hell, and Herbalife lays out tons of cash to bring him down. But it would take the Feds to finally deep-six the company—a company run by steely former Disney executive Michael O. Johnson, praised for its American-made ingenuity by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, hawked by sports giants like Cristiano Ronaldo and counting as one of its biggest financial backers and most ferocious advocates billionaire Carl Icahn, who is, after all, Trump’s economic advisor. So you see the odds right there.
But Braun’s movie is never more moving or troubling than when it focuses on an advocate named Julie Contreras and a group of Chicago-based Latino men and women, many of them undocumented, who represent the many who have been hustled out of millions by Herbalife’s exploitation of the American Dream. They’ve lost friends, family, retirement savings and businesses rolling the dice on Herbalife, and hearing them talk about it is heartrending.
Betting On Zero overstays its welcome, repeats itself too often and is disappointingly conventional in its use of narration, talking heads and Herbalife’s shiny, happy promo videos. But especially in the age of Trump’s policies that punish immigrants, the elderly and the sick while offering tax breaks to the wealthiest, the tale it tells of the struggle between Haves and Have-Nots tale is powerful, necessary and persuasive.