'Betting on Zero': Film Review

Courtesy of Zipper Bros Films
A fascinating real-life business tale, filled with colorful characters.

Ted Braun's documentary examines the financial machinations swirling around the controversial nutrition supplement company Herbalife.

It’s a safe bet that there’ll be a Hollywood dramatization of Ted Braun’s documentary about the machinations of financial titans revolving around Herbalife, the nutrition supplement company that’s been widely condemned as a massive pyramid scheme. Filled with colorful characters easily rivaling those in The Big Short or Showtime’s Billions, Betting on Zero is a well-done if not stylistically distinctive nonfiction effort that nonetheless proves fascinating due to its subject matter.

The film’s ostensible if unlikely hero is Bill Ackman, the CEO of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management. In 2012 he took a $1 billion dollar short on the company’s stock after becoming convinced that its nefarious business practices would result in its downfall. While one of the film’s commentators colorfully points out that “it takes big cojones to short stocks,” Ackman seemed sure of his bet. For him, he claimed, it was as much a moral as a financial decision. He declared that it would be “good for America” if the company, which he described as “the best-managed pyramid scheme in America,” went down in flames.  

The doc details how the company lured in distributors who made most of their money by earning commissions not on direct sales but on new sellers they recruited. Thus, those who became distributors down the line were hard-pressed to actually make any money, with nearly half of them earning less than $1,000 a year.

That didn’t seem to bother the company’s head, Michael Johnson, who is seen in a past interview saying that, for some people, $1,000 amounts to a lot of money. That many of the distributors were uneducated or undocumented immigrants only made them more vulnerable to the outlandish promises made by the company.

The story becomes even more dramatic with the arrival of Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor whose relationship with Ackman can only be described as mutual hatred. Seemingly motivated as much by vengeance as a belief in Herbalife, Icahn invested millions to drive up the company’s stock and thwart Ackman’s plans. The battle between the two financial titans gives the story an almost Shakespearean feel.

While Johnson, who has since left the company, declined to participate in the film, he’s extensively heard from in news footage and videos of company meetings. This inevitably puts more focus on Ackman, who did cooperate, allowing the filmmaker to include footage of him making such comments as “Michael Johnson is a predator. This is a criminal enterprise. I hope you’re listening, Michael.”

Betting on Zero also focuses on a class-action lawsuit filed by thousands of Hispanic distributors and their lawyer, who is determined to get them more than a pittance. The film’s coda informs us that the company was charged with deceptive and unfair practices by the FTC and paid a $200 million settlement that also mandated that they restructure their business practices. But the company is still in business and has vigorously attacked the documentary, even going so far as to set up a deceptive website pretending to be that of the film itself. Meanwhile, Icahn has become a “special advisor” to President Donald Trump on the issue of financial regulations.

Production companies: Zipper Bros Films, Biltmore Films
Distributor: FilmBuff
Director-screenwriter: Ted Braun
Producers: Glen Zipper, Devin Adair
Executive producers: Sonya Burres, John Fichthorn, Burke Koonce
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Editor: Leonard Feinstein
Composer: Pete Anthony

104 minutes