They are recognizable by their mantras, splashed across social media: “find your best self,” “live a full life” or “pursue your passion.” But are life coaches actually modern prophets, or simply concerned with making profits?
With his latest project, the documentary “The Weight of Success,” Wellesley native and director/producer M. Douglas Silverstein is challenging viewers to decide for themselves.
In working on the documentary, premiering at the Anchorage International Film Festival Friday, Silverstein found a polarizing industry.
“Some people think it’s phooey, and some people think it’s magic,” said Silverstein, who no longer lives in town but visits often.
“Hopefully,” he added, “if I’ve done my job, I’ve presented an interesting story that’s entertaining and thoughtful and makes people make up their own decisions about whether life coaches are a scam or not.”
Rock star levels of fame
“The Weight of Success” is a bit of a divergence for Silverstein, whose earlier work has largely been based in the music industry.
Silverstein has no shortage of stories from years in the business, from handing Paul McCartney his famed Hofner bass (with the Beatles’ last set list still taped to it) to producing a performance from a young Taylor Swift.
“She was this little, scrawny, kind of dorky, insecure little kid with this big pile of curls and even bigger dreams,” he recalled. “To see her selling out 85,000-seat stadiums around the world is just like, ‘Woah!’”
In his research for “The Weight of Success,” he drew comparisons between the rock stars he’s worked with and the life coaches who have likewise grown to staggering levels of fame.
“In the early days of MTV or FM radio, that’s how [rock stars] would be seen,” he explained. “But life coaches, they have YouTube and other forms of social media, and that’s how they become big and famous.”
If social media platforms are any indicator, life coaches are symptomatic of an aspirational society, Silverstein asserted.
“People are judged by their Instagram, they’re judged by their Facebook photos or their posts, positively and negatively,” he explained. “But ultimately, the things that get the most likes, besides really cute cats, are things that make people either look good or feel good.”
This influx on social media inspired Silverstein, not to “find his best self,” but to take a look at the life coaching industry and the many sides of the story.
A human story at heart
The documentary follows the life and work of Dr. Angela Lauria, a rising star in the life coaching industry. Hers is an underdog story, Silverstein explained: in less than five years, Lauria went from living in debt to making millions.
“She created this from spit, blood and perseverance. It’s astonishing to me,” Silverstein said. “She’s basically got a life coaching factory over there. That’s the way I look at it. She might be the next Oprah, and I was just like, ‘Wait a minute, how can this be real?’”
Despite her professional success, “We can all relate to this woman and the story told in the film, since we’re all people,” he said. “We all have successes and we all have failures and we’re all ultimately, hopefully, rooting for each other to succeed.”
Ultimately, he added, “It’s a very human story.”
This humanity is precisely what makes life coaching such an interesting subject, according to Silverstein.
“Really, at the core of it, people want to feel like they are loved, they are OK, they’re going to be OK,” he said, adding, “Whether that means you go to a therapist to make yourself feel better, or you go to a life coach to make yourself feel better, or think better things — whatever works for you is what matters.”
As a filmmaker, Silverstein feels his job is not to tell his viewers what to think, but to inspire them and perhaps even create some change.
“I mean, wouldn’t that be the greatest goal of any filmmaker or any creative person, to inspire others to find their greatest happiness, their greatest joy in life?” he asked. “Boy, I’d be really lucky if that’s what happens, even to one viewer.”
The documentary will premiere Dec. 7 at the Anchorage International Film Festival. The film will be in festivals until the end of June and will be available afterward both theatrically and for streaming, with details forthcoming, according to Silverstein.