Is the Wellness Industry a Scam? The Dream Thinks It Knows the Answer

Photo: Stitcher

This month will see the release of The Goop Lab, the new Netflix series from Gwyneth Paltrow’s divisive — as in, ethically dubious for its peddling of pseudoscience but nonetheless supported by countless fans and believers — wellness brand, currently valued at around $250 million. That the series exists at all shouldn’t be a surprising development. After all, Goop is a highly effective machine for capitalist achievement, growing at all costs in any and all directions. And what more obvious direction is there than television, with its peak status and golden age? (Apparently, a cruise experience.)

Every time a Goop story makes the rounds, I tend to hear the following inquiry bubble back up: Who on this burning planet believes in this stuff? Well, a ton of people, apparently, given that the wellness industry is said to be worth over $4 trillion these days … according to the wellness industry, anyway. Then again, that shouldn’t be all too surprising. There is an alluring emotional logic behind the “wellness” concept. That logic, ultimately, is rooted in a sense of anxiety — ostensibly about the chaos of the world, but mostly about death.

The Dream is a podcast that understands this, deeply and intimately. Hosted by Jane Marie, an alum of This American Life, and Dann Gallucci, her partner and creative collaborator, the series can be described as a vibrant and sustained inquiry into various systems of capitalist exploitation. Its second season, which began publishing in early December, is focused on the aforementioned $4 trillion-plus wellness industry, and it’s best interpreted as a continuation of the work it had done with its first season, which plunged deep into the world of multilevel marketing (MLM). For those unfamiliar, MLM is a controversial sales and marketing strategy that has a tendency to look a lot like a pyramid scheme, in that it creates a network of non-salaried salespeople who often find themselves pushed deep into debt by virtue of their participation in the scheme … unless they effectively recruit other souls into the sales network. Think It Follows, but for capitalism and debt. The scheme is the heartbeat of companies like Herbalife, Amway, Avon, and LuLaRoe.

The Dream does a good job illustrating the operational structure of these multilevel marketing systems: how they function, flourish, and sustain. But what it does really well is lay out the emotional architecture of these systems: why all sorts of people feel compelled to buy into the dream in the first place. A recurring theme in its explorations is a constant and effective seizing of gaps in social opportunity — specifically, how a combination of economic disparity, gender inequality, and other social factors can lead individuals from certain demographics to buy into these schemes in pursuit of something greater, or at least in pursuit of what everybody else already seems to have.

A core case study of the first season revolves around why certain MLMs strategically target women, capitalizing on their historic disenfranchisement from economic opportunity by offering the (semi-)illusion of upward mobility and social achievement. An echo can be found in the wellness-industry-focused sophomore season, which sketches how pseudoscience is often made to fill the gap left open by scientific uncertainty and, more crucially, a medical community that historically can be really bad at understanding, connecting with, and explaining itself to the wider world. Indeed, among the principal connecting threads tying the two seasons together is a clear understanding that the failures and exclusionary nature of various societal systems open up a pathway for predatory alternative systems (some in the shape of bottom-line-conscious corporations) that turn those breakdowns in service into a capitalist edge.

Speaking of edges, The Dream has some sharp ones of its own to consider, some of which may be a pro or a con depending on your sensibilities. The most important of which is its deeply activist and personal point of view, which it wields like a hammer. Though the podcast ostensibly features two hosts, its ultimate lens belongs to Jane Marie, who drives the show’s prosecutorial inquiries forward with the passion and self-belief of a religious crusader.

There’s an utterly fascinating portion of the sophomore season’s second episode that underscores Marie’s point of view. We get introduced to the fact that Gallucci — her co-host, creative collaborator, business partner, and boyfriend — himself buys into certain ideas and aspects of the wellness industry, at least marginally. They spend a decent amount of time on this, and we hear the two engage in a stimulating conversation in which Marie expresses her concerns and horror. Could her partner be even slightly open to a world she finds utterly batty and irredeemable?

“Raise your hand if you think Dan is crazy,” she asks the audience, assuming conspiracy with the listener. The sentiment is delivered somewhat playfully, and it clearly comes from a loving place, but it is also slightly presumptuous in the belief that everyone — at the very least you, the “not crazy” listener — shares the severity of the assessment.

That presumption can be alienating, depending on who you are, how you relate to the whole wellness concept and the world at large, and how you relate to people in your life that have some relationship to these things. And The Dream does this quite a bit, implicitly assuming that the listener has some shared level of moral repulsion (derived, perhaps, by similar backgrounds in education, class, and so on) as its primary point-of-view character. If you do share it, then all of this will probably come off as entertaining and vindicating. But if you’re even slightly at odds, it can feel remarkably ungenerous, particularly toward people who do participate in multilevel marketing schemes or feel some sort of hope emanating from the wellness industry.

The show does provide an explanation of sorts for its hard-line skepticism. Later in that same episode, we learn that Marie suffered from a childhood incident that has, among other things, led to sustained periods of horrendous pain throughout her life. This fact, in turn, powerfully contributes to the shaping of her worldview, which is a fascinating mix of nihilism (“I would love for the universe to mean something; that would be so rad,” she recently told the L.A. Times, jokingly but not really) and moralism. This piece of biographical information is certainly clarifying on a narrative level, but I’m struck by the possibility of some poetic mirroring: Give or take a few Sliding Doors moments, that very life experience could well have resulted in beliefs espoused by the powerful wellness industry.

This may raise the question of whether I’d prefer a classically structured journalistic documentary project on these subjects that shies away from a strong point of view. And my answer would be, “Absolutely not!” I’d rather take the point of view and all its attendant edges; it is the thing that makes this podcast so smart, funny, and genuinely engaging. To some extent, I do find myself wishing that I was able to share in their righteous fury, though I’m unable. I get where they’re coming from, but I personally find too much kinship with the people who do buy into these harmful systems. Perhaps ironically, The Dream was really helpful with that.

The Dream Offers a Withering Look at the Wellness Industry