This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. It all began with ads.
Overnight the bus, the subway, and my internet experience were plastered with ads for something called the Real Estate, Bitcoin, and Wealth Expo, headlined by noted economic experts Sylvester Stallone, Pitbull, and Alex Rodriguez. What the fuck could that event possibly be like? I’d wonder as I gazed upon their imperious stares. As someone who has spent his life in various stages of brokenness, and for whom money has always seemed less an asset and more an uncontrollable force like the weather, I knew had to discover what secrets of wealth and power could be gleaned from these fat, meaty heads. Maybe a podcasting class with Adam Carolla was just what I needed to turn this whole goddamn mess around.
I checked on the website, maybe the ugliest website I’ve seen since my high school band’s MySpace page. I’d seen online ads offering VIP tickets for $60, but it said those were now 250 bucks. Damn it, the deal must be over, I thought, but within moments, a popup arrived shrieking a very, special limited offer identical to the one I was looking for. What a steal! Many thanks and offerings to the fickle gods of luck and commerce for smiling down on this humble pilgrim.
The email invite informed me that the expo begins Saturday at 8 AM, but encouraged me to show up at 6:45 AM. Like many of the ideas I would encounter, this seemed psychotic. After chowing down on what I assume is the plucky entrepreneur’s traditional breakfast of a Burger King sausage and egg croissant sandwich, I arrived at the Metro Convention Center at 10 AM, a slightly hungover and greasy vessel ready to be filled with the ancient wisdom of the markets.
It was my first time at the Metro Convention Center. It’s one of those bland, behemoth buildings whose function is to provide inoffensive space to sterile bazaars dedicated to all manner of society’s subcultures, whether it’s small-town, golf-shirt dads gawking at the auto show or gangly cosplayers living their Mountain Dew daydreams at Comic-Con. In testament to the nondiscriminating, omnivorous appetite of the Convention Center, on the other side of it during the Wealth Expo, there was a World Wildlife Federation Conference. The building is so huge the events were separated by a physical space nearly as large as the ideological gulf between them.
So who were these people half-filling the dystopian grey, cavernous space, which subcultures were represented there? There were people who look like they miss partying with Patrick Brown. There were people dressed like assassins from the John Wick movies. There were mulletted Over the Top loving Stalloneheads, human toolboxes who never met an arm-wrestle they could turn down. There were slick douchebags and schlubby losers and people whose first dance at their wedding will be to a Chainsmokers song.
There was a DJ, a home renovator who proselytized about the merits of going to the gym before work as it helps him provide a better product to his customers and who was there in hopes of getting pumped up. There was Sadiq, a kind man who watched over my charging phone, childishly excited to see Stallone. He handed me his card, suggesting maybe I could write copy for his marketing agency after I told him I’m a writer.
There were influencers, drivers, mentors, and life coaches; persuaders, house-flippers, mom-preneurs, deprogrammers, and real estate all-stars. In a word, there were entrepreneurs. Fools and frauds infused with the spirit of commerce, tugging at the reins of self-doubt, regulation, and social obligation that restrain the flowering of their gilded lives and a richer society for us all.
There were also some fellow wiseasses laughing in the safety of our ironic remove. I meet up with one such prankster, a comedian friend, and we head to our first two seminars of the day—Coach Yourself to Success with Shanda Sumpter and Billion Dollar Marijuana Market with Sara Gullickson. These are fantastic picks. Both seminars made it clear out of the gate that the expo was dedicated to, first and foremost, bullshit and stupidity, a convention comprised of Coen Brother–type idiots and hucksters spewing out meaningless drivel of empty rhetoric and inflated numbers.
To the strains of gym instructor techno music, we filed into the old mayo-colored seminar room and were greeted by the sharp-featured Shanda Sumpter an entrepreneur coach. Sumpter had been a broke, Vegas nightclub manager. Well, broke in the way where you own three properties, one of which is being foreclosed upon. Sumpter was desperate to avoid foreclosure and did everything she could to avoid it including praying, hustling, and journaling before she stumbled onto entrepreneur coaching.
Even after her blitz of suspect figures (“I got this client’s Facebook Chat show up to 60,000 views a month”) and absurd name drops (the Chicken Soup for the Soul author, the creator of Spanx), I’m still not quite sure what that job is. As far as I can see, it’s mostly about inflating the egos of similar delusional idiots with meaningless buzzwords and hollow strategies like making sure your email subject lines will be appealing to both drivers and influencers. This was my introduction to an entire economy whose contours I had never seen before made up of a vast sea of small-time slumlords and shaky investors who, desperate and fantastical, were convinced they were one of hot deal away from becoming a titan of industry and the strata above them of con artists, phony gurus, and silver-tongued devils that made millions off exploiting the unlimited resource of people who completely missed the point of Wolf of Wall Street.
Sumpter had the confidence and meanness to deflect any questions from the audience that demanded specifics instead of platitudes. Not so the speaker at Billion Dollar Marijuana Market Sara Gullickson, whose bullshit was hilariously inept. Gullickson, a FOX News anchor type, was detailing how much money could be made in the wide-open field of marijuana when she was challenged by a kindly old lady, who informed her that the government would be in charge of selling weed here in Ontario. A flummoxed Gullickson responded with an early comedic highlight, “I know that here it’s different from providence to providence.”
After getting lunch at a hilariously beleaguered taqueria, unprepared for the avalanche of impatient douchebags, we entered the main hall ready for the big names. Up first was Alex Rodriguez, baseball legend, Shark Tank judge, and someone whose high school was five miles away from Jeff Bezos’, a factoid he was very proud of. Rodriguez uttered blunt statements that were only tangentially related and interspersed with bizarre, long pauses that gave the listener the opportunity to really dig into how stupid and funny they were. After talking about all the women that he has hired at his companies and decrying those who didn’t think he was business savvy because he was an athlete, he said, “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it just because you are a woman or an athlete or a firefighter.”
One thing I learned at the Expo is that entrepreneurs are never just entrepreneurs. No, they are rock stars, fighters, and athletes. Speeches throughout the day were belabored with "investing is a sport" metaphors. Perhaps this is why people nodded and clapped along to Rodriguez’s completely unrelatable and unhelpful advice. When a struggling gym owner asked A-Rod, who was boasting about the success of a newly purchased gym franchise how he could get business up at his gym, A-Rod responded by telling him he needed to make sure he got influencers in there. Like how smart gym owners would let the Yankees train for free back when he was one of the greatest baseball players ever. This fact, his athletic glories, never factored into the explanations of his success. No, that was due to guile and sound hiring practices, certainly not his home run–hitting abilities.
This is another main lesson from the Expo, wealth is never a product of history. Things like inheritances, fame, and other advantages have nothing to do with any of the speakers’ miraculous successes. No wealth is purely the result of a quest to rid oneself of the fears and doubts that are holding you back. The wealthy and their desires are unencumbered by the restraints of scarcity and geography and have developed a belief system and a creation myth that reflects that. As the next speaker, Marshall Sylver, put it “Wealthy people don’t determine what they want by what they can afford. They know what they want and figure out how to afford it.”
Sylver is a hulking, bald multimillionaire public speaker and hypnotist and clearly the most supervillain-like person I have ever encountered. A rich, bald hypnotist? That’s some Lex Luthor shit. When not boasting about the pleasures of owning a private jet and preaching about the power of his techniques of irresistible influence and selling a weight loss DVD called I Am Permanently Slender, Sylver was saying some truly bonkers, evil shit. When asked who the youngest person he had hypnotized was, he claimed he had hypnotized babies still in the womb. Quick to proclaim himself an expert in relationships, he stated, “I control my wife, and she controls me back. It’s a healthy relationship.”
And the crowd ate it up—cult of personality style. People flung their arms in the air like it was the Bhagwan himself. They vigorously responded, “Yes!” whenever Sylver asked them if they would want him to teach them how to be happy all the time. His answer was work less and get out of their own way. “Yes!” they cried. Their desperate eyes imploring him to deprogram them of all things that are holding them back from success. Take my credit card and financial information please you bald-headed monster man who is guaranteed to hypnotize me. Because if there is one thing I’ve noticed about strong, successful individuals it’s their susceptibility to hypnosis.
When Sylver finished after an hour and a half of "wealth and greed are good" sermons and teaching a woman how to swallow fire, I was sad. I was sad because this cult of money shit works. People like Sylver are rich, powerful, and in control of the world. This room was packed with people aspiring to be like the clumsy tyrants raging against their own impotencies and inflicting their insecurities on the world they see on TV. This was a world made for and by fascists and idiots—it was hopeless.
Then Pitbull showed up.
I didn’t know anything about Pitbull. I thought that song he does with Ne-Yo was by Macklemore. But I’m here to tell you that Pitbull rules. He swore a bunch, and railed against our narcissistic culture, calling Mark Zuckerberg a motherfucker before chastising Apple for bragging about having 3 trillion dollars, when they could be building schools with that money. He also said he loved babies but, importantly, nothing about hypnotizing them. He ended his rags-to-riches story with, “Millions, billions, trillion, it don’t mean shit. There are always more zeroes. Don’t mean nothing if you don’t help people.”
Comrade Pitbull then left the stage only to reemerge in a storm of pyro and confetti with his dancers and proceed to blow the motherfucking roof off. It's 4 PM, we are dead sober, and we were all losing our minds. People were dancing on chairs, and women in tank tops came out of nowhere and started handing out Pitbull-Stallone noisemakers that I started smashing together like salvation depended on it. When he started doing the Ne-Yo hit about enjoying life, I was jumping around giddy, and feeling connected to the people around me like I was on MDMA. Pitbull literally got me high on life.
Pitbull leveled the place. He was followed by a slick-haired trader who bombed trying to explain stock market strategies to people who had just been through the return of the Lord. All that was left was Stallone. I toured around the booths in the back and feigned interest about investing in Kitchener condos and luxury hotels in Buffalo. I bought a cold ham sandwich and watched young, acned jocks toss around a round business card like it was a frisbee.
I read some people were disappointed in Stallone’s speech. Not I. No, I fancy myself lucky I witnessed the absurd, ramblings of an old Hollywood legend drunk on adoration and stage fright. He “Yo Adrian-ed.” He randomly yelled words at the end of sentences, like when he told a little girl that for her to be an actress she, “had to find her NICHE!” He talked about lying awake in bed fantasizing about beating up Arnold Schwarzenegger. At different points, he described life at war and as a huge slab of raw meat. He told us having idols is stupid and called his fellow Italians “Goombas.” He looked like if present Al Pacino was inflated with air.
“Cliff-hanger?” he asked, staggering around the stage, “You want to talk about a scary experience… Oh my God,” delivering the OMG like some sort of irradiated Broad City character.
He talked a lot about fear. That he loved it, and claiming if he had another son, he would name him Fear. But also, that it was constantly with him, that he woke up every day afraid. He was afraid of losing it all, of not mattering, and that he had been a bad father. He was afraid right at that very moment because he hadn’t written any of this and was winging it, a claim I very much believed. Fear had driven Stallone to the peak of success, but he was telling us that even there he can’t escape it.
I don’t know if anyone realized, but Stallone was laying out the whole lie right out there in front of us. This expo was about fear. Fears that grab us all: that we aren’t successful, that we don’t matter, that we are working too hard, and that we are letting down the people we love. The con was the promise that people like Shanda and Marshall Sylver have the answer to relieve you from fear. That a new, successful you is there just beneath all that fear, and you just need to fork over enough dough and you’ll be reprogrammed and emerge fresh and shiny like a recently flipped house. But even the demolition man gets afraid still. No, as I learned when I sang along to the hook in “Give Me Everything,” the only salve for the fear, the only wealth and real estate that matters is helping and being with each other.
And now, I wait patiently for Brother Worldwide to give the signal for when we seize the means of production.
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