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Doc 'Betting on Zero' chronicles a big short on Herbalife

Doc 'Betting on Zero' chronicles a big short on Herbalife
Bill Ackman, left, in the documentary "Betting on Zero." (Gunpowder & Sky Distribution)

According to writer-director Ted Braun's fascinating documentary "Betting on Zero," there's been a venal pyramid scheme masquerading in plain sight as a can't-miss business opportunity. It's called Herbalife.

This often spooky cautionary tale is seen largely through the eyes of Bill Ackman, a persuasive, controversial hedge-fund magnate who, in 2012, took a $1-billion "short position" to help drive Herbalife's stock price to zero in an effort to expose what he deemed the multilevel marketing company's deceptive health-and-wealth sales pitch.

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Of particular concern to Ackman was Herbalife's alleged preying on those most eager to achieve the American dream: low-income and immigrant communities. (A 2016 Federal Trade Commission settlement forced a structural change to Herbalife's business model, one that rewarded distributor recruitment over sales of the company's nutritional and personal care products.)

Braun ("Darfur Now") builds solid momentum as he blends candid conversations with Ackman, other players and observers from the financial world, victimized former Herbalife employees and anti-Herbalife activists, with archival footage of Herbalife's unctuous leaders and promotional activities.

A feud between archenemies Ackman and Wall Street mogul — and Herbalife investor — Carl Icahn (now a special advisor to President Trump) provides some "clash of the titans"-type intrigue.

It all adds up to a timely, provocative and absorbing tale of money, power and a search for the truth.

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'Betting on Zero'

MPAA Rating: Not rated.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica.

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