Reviewing LuLaRich — the Amazon Prime docuseries about the multi-level-marketing company, or MLM, that imploded in 2019 — it's tempting to compare it to the darkly zany Kirsten Dunst revenge comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Both shows involve cultish pyramid schemes that promise big money for relatively little effort and attract ambitious married couples whose strong suit isn’t due diligence. These eager recruits stake their savings and personal credit ratings on the prospects of future wealth, and when it all goes bust, suddenly no one inside the company is home.
The similarities are real, but like so many shows on streaming TV these days, the complicated setup is just designed to get On Becoming a God out of the chute. Questions like “What kind of person willingly joins a pyramid scheme” soon take a backseat to ones like, “Why are those two hooking up?”
A better reference point for LuLaRich is the Duplass Brothers docuseries for Netflix, Wild Wild Country, which chronicled the rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon. Filmed decades after the controversy, Wild Wild Country was able to find some thoughtful former members of the Rajneesh band who offered very credible reasons for why they would leave their old lives behind to help a rogue swami from India build a town in the middle of nowhere.
Inside LuLaRich, directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason have embedded some equally compelling stories about why people get swept up by MLM fever and wind up bankrupting not only themselves but friends and family that they enthusiastically pull into the scheme with them.
Furst and Nason are best known for Fyre Fraud, the chippier of the two competing docs about the Fyre Festival disaster. And just as they did in Fyre Fraud, the filmmakers scored an interview with the people at the eye of the storm. Deanne and Mark Stidham, a Mormon couple with a Mormon-sized brood, started LuLaRoe in 2013 to sell comfortable, modest clothing using an army of “fashion consultants,” mostly married women selling out of their homes on Instagram.
We hear plenty from the Stidhams over the course of four hours, but it’s the less flattering video inserted between sound bites that's more compelling. Here’s Mark Stidham berating sellers for not working hard enough. Here’s a company executive promising that LuLaRoe will always accept unsold merchandise for a 100% refund (a promise the company will renege on when times get tough).
And here are the Stidhams taking part in a very different kind of interview — videotaped depositions they were forced to give in 2019 when the State of Washington sued them on behalf of more than 3000 LuLaRoe vendors over “deceptive claims and false promises.” It’s what they don’t say in their depositions that is so damning. Each time one of their hype-filled statements is read back to them by the state attorney, they meekly retreat behind a stock answer like “I don’t recall.” (LuLaRoe eventually agreed to pay $4.75 million in the case.)
Amazon’s publicity promises that LuLaRich shows “how it all went wrong in a spectacularly weird—and comedic—fashion.” That’s a bit of an oversell. Certainly there are some odd tidbits in here, like the woman who sells her breast milk in order to afford the $5,000 franchise fee to sell LuLaRoe, or the Stidham family members who are appointed to executive positions in the company despite a dearth of experience. But these are hardly red flags.
Besides, as LuLaRich amply documents, business was great for a long time. Lots of people made money selling fast fashion. Yes, scale was a problem, as it might be at any company that grows insanely — just five years into operations LuLaRoe had 80,000 sellers and more than $1 billion in sales. Boxes began arriving at sellers’ doorsteps filled with damp, stinky items. Some company designers dealt with the relentless demand for new looks by copying and pasting images off the web. So many weird images were appearing on LuLaRoe apparel that they inspired their own subreddit.
This all makes great fodder when trying to fill a four-part docuseries, but it doesn’t really get at why LuLaRoe failed. Those reasons aren’t weird or comedic in the least: The company grew too fast for its own good, it was run by two people who were much better at selling than bookkeeping, they picked the wrong business structure and a fatal combination of social media and journalism exposed their sins.
MLMs rely for their revenue not just on product sales by their members, but on members recruiting other people to sell product. These “downlines” are typically friends and family members of the original seller, who — along with their uplines — take a cut of every sale by their downlines.
Legally, this pyramidal structure is allowed up to five levels. Ethically, it’s super-sketchy to impose this business model on people who are launching their very first enterprise, often at great financial risk. Since the wild wild country of MLM is largely unregulated, no one at LuLaRoe was obligated to tell the 80 percent of sellers at the bottom of the pyramid that there was no way they were going to make money without downlines below them, not with thousands of more established LuLaRoe sellers already crowding social media.
Eventually, though, low profits and quality issues caught up with LuLaRoe. Frustrated vendors began speaking up on public-facing boards. An intrepid watchdog began documenting the problems with the company’s MLM model. A dedicated BuzzFeed writer published stories about some of the hundreds of women whose modest fortunes were wiped out by the company’s ineptitude and bad faith. We hear from all of these parties, and they’re the ones who make LuLaRich an illuminating (if two episodes too long) view.
The filmmakers follow several current and former LuLaRoe vendors, chronicling their journeys through the early successes and the hard times. For these women and thousands like them, having a LuLaRoe franchise was their first real taste of entrepreneurship. LuLaRich leaves you with the impression that many of these women have suffered lasting damage to their relationships as well as finances.
Still, as any entrepreneur will tell you, failure is not a bug in the capitalist machine, it’s a feature. I suspect many of these women will bounce back, if they haven’t already, and apply the lessons learned to their next adventure in selling. If nothing else, they’ve had two valuable takeaways: one, don't do a MLM; and two, don't trust anyone who even vaguely reminds you of Mark and Deanne Stidham.
LuLaRich premieres September 10th on Amazon Prime Video.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.