William Ackman, quietly charismatic investor and producer of Inside Job, has made a short bet on Herbalife, which he claims is a pyramid scheme benefiting the rich at the top and stealing from the poor at the bottom. Betting on Zero is the fascinating documentary about the battle between equally charismatic Herbalife CEO, William Johnson, and Ackman.
The ambiguity comes on two levels: Is Johnson a con man or a brilliant business man? Is Ackman in this game to bring down the price of Herbalife's stock and cause the company to close, or is he looking to make a huge profit (he promises to spread his profit to the poor, mainly Latinos, who bought into the pyramid)? This doc is not as pro-Ackman as you might expect. By tracking him coming to a meeting like a rock star out of a black SUV and increasing skepticism about his motives, it seems to support a balanced view. Yes, Johnson has been part of a management that has made the company worth over $50 billion and many at that high level, millionaires, yet the evidence is that the need for more and more managers merely means more people in the lower levels will never make a buck.
As with The Big Short and Margin Call, both about the bad mortgage game, the tension is ripe even though we know the outcome of a potentially nerdy story. However, these stories are all fraught with human drama and educational enlightenment for those of us not versed in financial language and events.
These real-life stars carry the moral ambiguity of Shakespearean tragic characters, which, in this case, appear to honor and protect the consumers who buy their products. You will leave the theater with a better understanding of shorting and more than that, a wariness about door-to- door products and slick purveyors.