It was only a matter of time before Netflix got around to creating the streaming version of the infomercial. But of all the places to start, it couldn’t have picked a worst subject than “The Goop Lab,” a six-episode, soft-focused extended commercial for Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous lifestyle brand. Based on the same pseudoscientific nonsense that brought us such (more deadly) hits as Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine movement, “The Goop Lab” promises to illuminate the paths to a nebulous idea of “wellness.” But this isn’t just an ad for a health fad. It also (presumably accidentally) exposes Goop to be a terrible company with a clueless founder.
This isn’t just an ad for a health fad. It also (presumably accidentally) exposes Goop to be a terrible company with a clueless founder.
The daughter of producer Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow peaked in 1998 after winning a best actress Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.” A decade later, faced with Hollywood’s bias against women over 40 and stuck taking girlfriend roles in movies like “Iron Man,” she launched a “lifestyle blog.” Paltrow wasn’t alone in this, as many actresses have tried to become “brands,” from Jessica Alba’s Honest Company to Drew Barrymore’s Flower Beauty.
But Paltrow’s company had two things that made it stand apart. The first was its ridiculous name, Goop. (The name was chosen partially because of an inside joke and partially because of Paltrow’s initials.) The other was that she straight-up sold snake oil: water bottles with crystals inside that “radiate energy,” packets of pills that have no proven medicinal value, and the infamous jade “yoni egg.” Paltrow peddled false promises of a better you aimed at the upper-class white woman like herself, with high-powered careers, ambitious health goals and money to burn.
Goop’s claims are, at best, often useless. But sometimes her stuff careens into dangerous territory. So when Netflix signed Paltrow to create a show featuring her 21st century version of Victorian quackery, there was an outcry. Women of a certain age and class may already know Goop. But with Netflix’s reach, it will surely become a household name.
Those concerns are valid. But even as entertainment, the show is a nesting doll of terrible. Paltrow and her Goop compatriots, most notably Elise Loehnen, Goop’s chief content officer, spend six episodes entertaining the idea that science is trying to keep us from opening our minds to the true path to “wellness.” Add in a parade of Goop employees “volunteering” to be experimented on and a huge helping of the myopic cultural assumptions of those trying to sell it, and the show becomes downright tasteless. But the most remarkable part is how it undercuts Goop’s biggest claim: that Paltrow is someone we should be listening to in the first place.
“Being the person people perceive me to be is inherently traumatic,” Paltrow declares, one of several choice quotes that were (assumedly) somehow approved by both Goop and Paltrow. It must be traumatic to sit and nod along sagely with guests making claims that range from the improbable to the sublimely ludicrous, but someone has to do it. And Paltrow seems to buy the hype she’s selling. In the episode on “de-aging,” the University of Southern California Longevity Center’s Valter Longo insists fasting magically reverses how old you are (on the inside). Paltrow volunteers to do the actual fasting part, blithely comparing it to other cleanses and detoxes she does on a regular basis. (Cleanses, generally speaking, have no proven health benefits.)
But then she and Loehnen go get fancy cosmetic procedures done, anyway. Loehnen gets a form of collagen stimulation featuring 100 needles in her face, a procedure she dubs as “more natural” than other measures. Paltrow gets the trendy "vampire facial," which is microdermabrasion, followed by the application of "PRP" (platelet-rich plasma). She too remarks that this is a "natural" method because you're using your own blood.
In another installment, Paltrow is revealed to be a regular client of “body worker” John Amaral (who was just at Davos), who claims “healers” can wave their hands a foot above your body and “massage” your energy. It’s one thing to watch Goop staff in what is obviously a staged session, but Paltrow admits she books sessions regularly. Meanwhile, in what is sure to be the show’s most talked about episode, Paltrow reveals she doesn’t know basic anatomy, and has to be schooled by sex therapist Betty Dodson on the difference between “vagina” and “vulva.” This is a distinction most women aren’t aware of, which is Dodson’s point. But for someone whose Goop line is filled with wellness-generating sex toys, it surprising that Paltrow has never learned the basics.
The show also blithely undercuts its own featured experts. In an episode on the benefits of mushrooms, psychiatrist Will Siu talks about the importance of taking phycobilin in controlled doses under the right circumstances, suggesting that it can one day be taken in pill form, much like regular anti-anxiety medication. This is interwoven with footage of Goop staffers in a gated resort in Jamaica, supposedly taking it under a “controlled circumstances,” but really drinking far less standardized doses of ‘shroom tea in much the same way rich college kids do in dorm rooms. In another, Wim Hof claims that your breathing method means you will not feel cold. Cut to half a dozen Goop staffers in bikinis shivering in the snow insisting they’re not really cold. (I should note here the Wim Hof method is connected to multiple deaths.)
The show calls the staff “volunteers,” but one remarks during her Hof experience that this is the strangest thing she’s been asked to do for a job, suggesting these “volunteer” assignments are the kind that come without the luxury of refusal. It also explains Loehnen’s comment: “It would have been amazing to take the Goop staff and shoot them full of endotoxins, but Netflix legal said no.” (My personal favorite is Loehnen’s explanation for why Goop staffers were not sent to Dodson’s masturbation workshop: “An HR nightmare.”) But like Paltrow, some staffers do buy into what their employer is selling, such as the woman who declares that after her experience with Hof, she was able to stop taking her panic attack medication.
Wellness has become a billion-dollar industry in large part because women feel (with reason) that the medical community is not taking their health concerns seriously.
At least some episodes have a grain of truth to them. One might laugh at Goop staffers eating mushrooms, but there are reputable academic researchers who are using certain psychedelics to help with PTSD. Despite the intensely voyeuristic nature of the Dodson episode, including a long sequence where the editor in chief of Dodson’s website, Carlin Ross, masturbates on camera, she’s not wrong that there is no mainstream culture on this earth where women are not shamed for their sexuality. If all six episodes had this kind of basis in reality, there would be something here, even if Paltrow comes off as a dilettante. Because while cleanses and breathing techniques and magic pills may be useless, wellness has become a billion-dollar industry in large part because women feel (with reason) that the medical community is not taking their health concerns seriously.
Sadly, as the show progresses, things become unmoored from reality until, in the worst episode of them all, we are asked to believe that communicating with the dead is possible. A common and particularly cruel scam that long predates Goop, this episode nonetheless features a scene where a supposed “medium” spends entire minutes guessing details of the life of the Goop staffer, getting each and every “sense” wrong, until she is rescued by Goop’s producers who magically produce someone just off camera who the medium was supposedly “reading” the whole time by accident.
Each episode opens with the disclaimer: “The following series is designed to entertain and inform — you should always consult your doctor when it comes to your personal health, or before you start any treatment.” Netflix legal probably hopes this fig leaf of a placard is enough. But with health care in this country in crisis, and the promise of easy living just a few website purchases away, many people may buy what Paltrow is selling. Why Netflix decided to help is confounding. And they should be ashamed of it.