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Religious cults and convenience scams are siblings, united by charismatic leaders, credulous followers and ideological sleight of hand. They’re also unified in having seemingly been the subjects of every other longform documentary produced for streaming or cable in the past few years.
While some of the documentaries in this sphere have been set in the past — see Murder Among the Mormons, McMillion$ and various docs tied to Heaven’s Gate, Peoples Temple and more — the most burgeoning subgenre here seems to lurch haltingly and misleading from the internet, the primordial ooze where all human truth, and endless prevarications, find unlimited bandwidth to foment. From multiple documentaries about the Fyre Festival to glimpses inside the manipulation of WeWork and QAnon, the scams and schemes birthed online, and the wide-eyed acolytes pulled in by them, are endlessly fascinating and a source of endless schadenfreude.
Airdate: Friday, Sept. 10
Directors: Jenner Furst, Julia Willoughby Nason
It isn’t at all shocking to see that Amazon’s four-part LuLaRich comes from directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, who helmed the Hulu Fyre Festival documentary, not to be confused with the Netflix Fyre Festival documentary, though surely at this point I do.
So many of the elements of LuLaRich feel like extensions of previous cyberscam/cybercult documentaries, which by now have a fairly codified rise-and-fall structure accompanied by common scenes of limited embellishment — TED Talk-like leadership speeches, obscenely expensive concerts with overpaid musical acts, etc. LuLaRich doesn’t break new ground at all, but it treats its vulnerable subjects with some empathy and effectively layers some of the wild (but really not so wild) twists that the story takes.
And is Amazon actually in any position to be lecturing any other primarily online retailer on questionable business practices and employee treatment? Yes! Amazon is apparently in that position.
If I’m being honest, my awareness of LuLaRoe stems almost completely from late night comedians, including Samantha Bee and John Oliver, and their mocking of the women’s apparel company after various dominos had begun to fall. I was never invited to a party showcasing colorful maxi skirts, nor have any of my high school friends on Facebook ever done a Facebook Live to try to encourage me to buy leggings.
Fortunately, Furst and Nason don’t require pre-knowledge of how Deanne Brady and Mark Stidham built their company — the name refers to their granddaughters Lucy, Lola and Monroe — from a clothing resale company built in their spare room into a multibillion-dollar “original” fashion empire constructed on the principles of a multilevel marketing company (or an alleged pyramid scheme). And Furst and Nason don’t require pre-knowledge of MLMs and pyramid schemes, though anybody who watched On Becoming a God in Central Florida or Murder on Middle Beach should be thoroughly prepared for all the talk of “uplines,” “downlines” and the other terminology of the scheme — er, trade.
Brady and Stidham sat down for one seemingly thorough LuLaRich interview from the LuLaRoe headquarters in an office park in Corona, California, and they’re unsurprisingly voluble and candid when it comes to the company’s early days and unsurprisingly cagey and evasive and occasionally hostile when it comes to the run of lawsuits and social media campaigns against the company in the past couple of years. To augment their interview with the founders, the directors include even more evasive footage from a 2019 deposition.
It’s my assumption that Brady and Stidham did this interview — a chyron says they declined a chance to do a second one — on behalf of their family, with most of the couple’s bizarre blended clan appearing in deposition and other footage, but opting not to provide new accounts. All things considered, the professional nepotism at work here, as well as oddities like two of Brady’s kids marrying each other, definitely require more exploration than LuLaRich is capable of providing.
Most of the series — each episode runs a tight 45-ish minutes, making this the rare documentary that, to me, didn’t feel bloated or anemic — is built around various employees within the LuLaRoe structure, which includes a pyramid of job descriptions ranging from “consultant” to “retailer” to “mentor.” With the help of one or two MLM experts or journalists, they paint a more expansive portrait of the backdrop for decades of various multilevel marketing companies from Amway to Mary Kay to Herbalife. Of particular interest is the focus on the way these operations/schemes/businesses target women in general and stay-at-home mothers in particular, how the opportunities to earn a little extra spending money can transform into the allure of “full-time money for part-time work,” and how that can then evolve into the endless hustle of a business model that relies on the people at the top getting very, very rich and the people at the bottom too often going bankrupt.
The documentary presents a solidly representative group of LuLaRoe veterans, some of whom are still working for the company, others who have been part of various legal actions against it. Some are perfectly willing to admit how much money they were making at the peak of their involvement; some are more demure or possibly even embarrassed. On Fyre Fraud, I felt like Furst and Nason were either sneering at nearly everybody associated with the fiasco or at least gently mocking them, which was appropriate for a case in which even the “victims” of the fraud were unsympathetic influencers (and the filmmakers fell well short of sufficiently depicting the Bahamian natives who were actual victims).
Here, there are people whose lives have been destroyed by their involvement with LuLaRoe, and the directors approach them with real gentleness and awareness of an economic model that preys on certain demographics. There are places I might have wanted the directors to push a little harder in their questions, but they include their off-camera queries enough to let audiences know that some tough questions were asked.
Though tears are shed, the directors keep the documentary loose and bright, reducing the format’s rigidity by including behind-the-scenes lead-ups to interviews and staging interviews in sunny, colorful rooms. The documentary has several very funny breakout personalities whom the directors are able to lean on, including LaShae, an office worker whose reason for not going on the company’s cruise caused me to laugh out loud, and Derryl, a data entry veteran who very clearly views himself as the Erin Brockovich of this story, even if he isn’t.
Over the four episodes, LuLaRich parses the twists and turns in a way that mostly lets you forget that no matter how shady LuLaRoe may be, this isn’t a completed story like Fyre Festival was. LuLaRoe continues to produce apparel — nothing here gives any indication whether notorious issues like “stinky leggings,” declining material quality and various ill-conceived designs have been handled — and continues to have a team of employees. It’s pretty obvious from the series that there are scandals and revelations likely to come in the next few years that could add additional drama. But since LuLaRich didn’t feel padded in this form, maybe I’d still be happy to watch a supplemental episode or two as necessary, though we’ll probably have had five or 10 documentaries in the same vein between now and then.
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