The essential flaw of the American economy often seems binary: the 47 percent vs. corporate greed, us against them. But the documentary Betting on Zero is the Wall Street version of a superhero saga, where the unlikely rescuer is hedge fund investor and one-percenter Bill Ackman, who took on pyramid scheme Herbalife in a billion-dollar “short” bet that it would collapse under regulatory scrutiny of the predatory nature of its business.
Through interviews with former distributors and Herbalife’s own recruiting videos, the film shows how the nutritional supplements purveyor emphasizes the conscription of people over actual sales of its teas, pills and powders, priced far above similar tinctures in any drugstore aisle. Enlistment depends on classic too-good-to-be-true get-rich-quick testimonials, irresistible to many immigrants and red-state types who, despite their hard work, have had trouble getting ahead. They end up with fractured friendships, depleted savings, and garages full of useless product.
The story has a top villain, too: Ackman is thwarted by activist billionaire investor (and personal adversary) Carl Icahn, who himself invests millions to drive up Herbalife’s stock, making Acrman’s scheme a years-long nightmare rather than a moral — or money-making — victory. Meanwhile, it’s unclear why regulators are so slow to investigate Ackman’s claims, especially considering Herbalife is a publicly traded company. The situation is heartbreaking and frustrating. But the film is so persuasive that it could help finally tank Herbalife’s shares and validate Ackman’s gamble — possibly preventing thousands of others.
Betting on Zero
Written and directed by Ted Braun
Opens March 17, Village East Cinema