Ted Braun’s Betting on Zero is one of those documentaries that is designed to infuriate you. It wants you to be so agitated by what you’ve heard that you’re moved to action. The doc, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, focuses on Herbalife. You’ve probably heard of Herbalife – it’s that health and nutritional supplement multi-level marketing company whose products you can’t buy in stores or online. Instead, they’re sold by distributors who earn money not only by the inventory they’re able to sell off to random customers, but by the number of people they’re able to recruit. As one of Braun’s main subjects in the movie, a Wall Street hedge-fund manager called Bill Ackman puts it, Herbalife is a pyramid scheme that is destined to collapse.
Most of Betting on Zero focuses on Ackman’s crusade against Herbalife (whose stock he’s shorting: simply, he’s betting it loses value therefore making him a profit). But it is the testimonials of the many Latinos who have been ravaged by their involvement in the company that really hits home. “Part of what drew me to make the film was the curiosity about the American dream and money’s place in the American dream. And money’s place in American life and values,” Braun told Remezcla.
In much of their advertising, Herbalife promises those it recruits access to the kind of wealth we’ve come to associate with the American dream. To many immigrant Latinos (some of them undocumented), the idea of being able to make money quickly while being their own boss is a very seductive proposition. One, which is, as the documentary shows, rather unlikely. But don’t take it from us, or even the film. Here’s the Federal Trade Commission, which issued a ruling on the matter last summer:
“According to the FTC’s complaint, Herbalife claims that people who participate can expect to quit their jobs, earn thousands of dollars a month, make a career-level income, or even get rich. But the truth, as alleged in the FTC complaint, is that the overwhelming majority of distributors who pursue the business opportunity earn little or no money.”
And while the FTC steered clear of pegging Herbalife as a pyramid scheme, it effectively confirmed both Ackman’s accusations and the many claims Braun’s film makes about the way the Los Angeles-based company has targeted vulnerable communities, offering them “get rich quick” schemes that rarely materialize. That is what multi-level marketing companies are premised on even as their legality is up for debate.
The FTC findings came after the documentary was finished and handed down a $200 million settlement to Herbalife’s victims. The report merely mirrored what we see in Braun’s documentary which includes firsthand accounts by people who lost thousands of dollars to Herbalife. This explains why the now global conglomerate has worked hard to discredit the film. After the doc premiered at Tribeca, Herbalife put up an attack website aimed at the film which they call an “infomercial targeting the direct selling industry” and where they also alleged that it was recently revealed that Ackman and his team of bankers had been “collaborating and conspiring on the film.” This is, at face value, a distortion of their source. Their linked story, a lengthy New Yorker profile of the Ackman-Herbalife odyssey, merely notes that Ackman had begun “cooperating with a filmmaker on a documentary about the battle,” with no other mention of Braun’s doc.
“There had been several instances since we screened the film at the Tribeca Film Festival where Herbalife has attempted to either intimidate festivals from screening the film or preventing viewers from seeing the film,” Braun told Remezcla. Ahead of the doc’s sold-out Washington, D.C. premiere at the Double Exposure film festival, organizers of the fest noticed “an unusual buying pattern.” As the New York Post reported, “Exactly half of the tickets purchased appeared to be made by ten employees of Heather Podesta & Partners, a DC-based lobbying firm that works with Herbalife.” Those tickets were never claimed leaving half the theater empty.
Activist Julie Contreras, who’s featured in Braun’s documentary, is the commissioner for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Illinois’ Immigrant Affairs Commission. Much of her work concerns undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Seeing firsthand how Herbalife had hurt members of her own community, of her pueblo, as she puts it, she was driven to action. She became an outspoken champion of those who, given their undocumented status, might have otherwise kept quiet. This has made her a target of Herbalife’s lawyers who on many occasions have asked her to cease and desist from spreading what they say are false statements about the company — namely, that it exploits the Hispanic community and has misled many into losing their hard-earned money.
“Herbalife is not a good corporation,” she told Remezcla. “And I don’t care what they say or do. Or how many Latino organizations unfortunately betray their people and take their money. It’s not gonna change the truth. And the truth is that this corrupt corporation has hurt our community.”
She’s had to endure intimidation that’s lately begun to take on a more sinister vibe, with Twitter users (including one self-described “stock-picker” from Australia) threatening to report to ICE the Herbalife victims Contreras has been working with.
Given the current political climate and Trump’s latest policies on immigration, these threats weigh heavily on Contreras. Especially since she knows how hard it’s been to get some of these people to come forward with their stories. “It’s unacceptable that they think they can treat our community like this. It was such hard work to work with our community and hold them by their hand and have the Attorney General come into our sanctuary to take their testimony. That was a huge hurdle. I held them as they were shaking and crying. They feared sharing not only how they very victimized but they feared that they were now talking to a federal law enforcement agency.”
Even as Betting On Zero begins to reach a wider audience, Contreras is constantly reminded that the story of those who lost their savings buying into what Herbalife was selling isn’t over. “We’re thankful for people like Mr. Ackman and Mr. Braun who have taken the steps to stand up for our people. Not many people will do that. But we are working for the people” — not for Ackman, she stresses — “and we are working for justice for companies like Herbalife that plague our people because of that desire to have the American dream. But these people live in a reality that I don’t think anybody in Wall St. understands.” Nevertheless, she persists and she won’t stand down until more people in our communities get more informed about Herbalife and get educated about what’s on the line when they sign on for what on the surface looks like a golden ticket to the top.