Becoming Warren Buffett opens with the second-wealthiest person in the world driving his modest car on the same five-minute commute he’s taken to work for the past half-century. On the way, he stops for breakfast at McDonald’s. He always buys one of three meals, choosing based on how the market is doing that day. Whereas some billionaires earn their public images through outsized behavior, developing veritable cults of personality, influencing politics, or some combination thereof, Buffett is known primarily for his incongruous penny-pinching. He’s known as the “Oracle of Omaha,” and his projection as a sort of ascetic plays to the ancient resonance of the moniker.
This documentary, which premiered on HBO January 30 and remains available to view on the network’s streaming services, biographizes Buffett, alternating between telling the narrative of his life and presenting snippets of his investing philosophy. These two approaches flesh out both meanings of the title — the literal story of how Warren Buffett became who he is, and the implicit idea that, with proper application of his advice, you too could become him. People who devour self-help books in search of the easy path to success might find this riveting, but anyone else will likely be tremendously bored. Becoming Warren Buffett makes the same mistake that most pop culture discourse does about the rich: It assumes that they’re automatically compelling because they’re rich. This is not the case.
Buffett may have staked his claim as the billionaire basic b*tch paramount, but a profile of pretty much any big-name businessperson will almost invariably reveal them as similarly uninteresting. The next time you read such an article, mentally subtract the context that the subject could buy (or has bought) their own island and ask whether they still seem worthy of such scrutiny.
The crowning example is, and you knew this was coming from the top of the sentence, Donald Trump, who may be a real estate robber baron but is in personality indistinguishable from any other blustery New York a**hole. He’s so devoid of taste that he prefers steak that “… would rock on the plate, it was so well done.” Yet for decades, the media went to him for his opinion again and again, which paved the way for our present moment, in which his worthless blatherings unfortunately affect the shape of global events. The opinions of celebrities are so omnipresent in American culture that it often goes unquestioned, but this is worth repeating: The sole reason any magazine or news show ever asked Trump for his take on current events was that he was rich. That is bonkers.
The same assumption of inherent entertainment value in those with more personal value undergirds Becoming Warren Buffett. But Buffett himself denies, at multiple points in the film, that he is anything more than plain. He also actively works to ensure that he doesn’t come off as more than such. When the movie comes to some moments in his life which were presumably emotionally charged — the deaths of his father and his first wife, for instance — he quietly but firmly tells the filmmakers that he’s not interested in talking about them. No big deal, only some of the formative milestones in his emotional journey, which would make him far more understandable as a human being. Anyway, here’s his rule on how to pick the right stock! Without any connection to Buffett, the documentary gives no reason it wouldn’t be better off as a listicle in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Besides his frugality, Buffett is also known for his outspoken support of progressive causes, like civil rights and feminism, and for his pledge to give away most of his fortune to charity before he dies. The movie covers this as well, incorporating his political awakening into the arc it constructs for his life. But in this way, the documentary commits another common sin the media is prone to when dealing with public figures: It takes Buffett at his word.
Image is more important than action in American politics. What one does matters far less than what one says. Barack Obama spent eight years gesticulating proudly about hope with his left hand while signing drone strike orders with his right. Warren Buffett is admired in progressive circles for his lip service to economic justice, with his anecdote about how he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary getting repeated often. His philanthropy has made him a beloved fixture in the inspirational role model genre of social media memes. But most of that charity is going to the Gates Foundation — which, as just one example, is a major mover behind the ruinous growth of charter schools in the U.S. His mobile housing company, Clayton Homes, has been accused of predatory lending. Despite being a vocal critic of President Trump, he voiced “overwhelming” support for Trump’s Cabinet picks, saying that, “The CEO … should have the ability to pick people that help you run a place,” displaying a disturbingly similar idea of political leadership to the one Trump himself holds.
Becoming Warren Buffett takes its subject at his word without bothering to double-check. After all, raising questions about the practices of the various businesses Buffett owns would undermine the idea of him as an everyman who worked his way into billions. It might suggest that, even if he eats breakfast at McDonald’s every day, he might not be such a down-home aw-shucks guy. It harshes the warm glow of fantasizing about having that kind of wealth. In this way, it is paradoxically horrifying despite its total banality. In that way, it demonstrates the worst trap a biographical documentary can fall into: In a way, it becomes like its main character.