A sucker for experiences of the deeply surreal kind, I could not miss the chance on Saturday to see Sylvester Stallone and Pitbull lining up alongside a bunch of Z-listers and get-rich-quick tricksters to give motivational talks to thousands of bewildered Torontonians.
The car crash of a subway ad had done enough to lure me in. What was once the humble Real Estate Wealth Expo had become the Real Estate BITCOIN Wealth Expo (like moths to a flame), and this year with a genuine superstar on the roster thanks to Sly inexplicably agreeing to do the gig.
Learn how to become a millionaire, the ravenous hordes had been promised, and with a grim predictability they flocked to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre dreaming of easy fortunes and burning with materialistic desires.
The organizers had gone to considerable lengths to distract guests from the event’s sinister intentions (Toronto home sales have fallen 40% year-over-year, and the Expo strategically tours cities in need of buyers, MacLean’s reported last year), deploying an army of enthusiastic staff to work the floor and putting up posters of inspirational quotes at every turn.
As I descend the Convention Centre’s escalators into the pits of hell, I am high-fived by a Willy Wonka-era Gene Wilder lookalike. I overhear a man on the phone say he’s at a “stupid networking thing” as I pick up my badge at the registration desk, and a woman sporting a deranged grin asks if I’m “pumped”.
Upon entering the enormous main hall, it takes roughly three seconds to hear the first David Brent-ism, courtesy of Brian Allen and his ‘Real Estate Funding & Flipping’ talk. “Ever heard of real estate? No?” he quips. “How many of you still have money in the bank?” I’d been there just two minutes and already Steve Jobs and his motto “think different” were showing on the big screen.
“You don’t need an education for real estate,” Allen tells the audience, before recounting the story of a young man who — despite having “the IQ of a lamppost” — earned enough money from quick-and-dirty housing investments to buy his very own Range Rover.
He calls a Niagara couple up to the stage to tell their success story. “I’m not too skeptical”, the husband chuckles. “My wife has saved me from a few bad deals.” His secret to getting real estate rich: “Just get off your duff and do it!”
A feeling of vast emptiness washes over me. The Real Estate Bitcoin Wealth Expo is a paradox: it is so perfectly nothing, yet also somehow encapsulates everything ill in modern society. Every detail here, big and small, seems magnified; the place is loaded with cautionary tales of headless consumerism — with the horrors of a human being’s purpose reduced to numbers on a screen. “Think like Americans!” Allen commands his audience of dead-eyed disciples.
“I was diagnosed with ADD, I wasn’t too smart,” he continues. But that wasn’t about to stop him. “The whole school system is broken. They teach you how to make somebody else rich!” The talk had settled into a familiar pattern: OK, you’re dumb, but look, it takes ten minutes to vet a property, and even you can do it. Just be fearless. That word — fear — is exploited time and time again, goading people to rip apart any dangling thread of skepticism that might be holding their lives together.
I see a woman wearing heels so high she can barely walk. “I know I look like I’m on drugs, but I’m not,” Allen assures us as he wraps things up. “Real estate is my drug.” After the talk, I watch people quite literally waving their credit cards in the air as they clamour to sign up for his $1,000 3-day course. As I observe, I wonder how these people manage to live day-to-day in such spontaneous chaos. It’s a lot to take in so early in the day.
Time to stretch my legs. I meander out of the main hall and up to the next floor in search of more insanity. There are seven smaller rooms with talks going on throughout the day. I look over the schedule to see what interests me — let’s try ‘eCommerce Biz’ with Mark Stone. I walk in to him pitching his wholesome American lifestyle — baseball and apple pie stuff — all made possible by his multi-million-dollar Amazon Seller businesses which, he swears, were oh-so-easy to get off the ground.
Zero mention of the years of hard work and dedication it really took, or of the long hours he presumably still puts in — that’s not what people are here to hear. One telltale crack does appear in Stone’s robust veneer of uber-positivity: “I lost a lot of money at one point,” he admits. “I needed about $3,000 worth of therapy.” Notice how even his mental wellbeing is described in terms of how many dollars it cost to fix. It wasn’t yet noon and already my misanthropy had reached record highs.
I emerge from Stone’s rudimentary lesson a near broken man in search of something — anything — to wash its icky residue from my mind. Many of the talks are about the latest investing fads; whatever buzzword they can use to get people through the door. Not only are several about Bitcoin, but there are also sessions on Ethereum and cannabis. Long lines form outside all the rooms, and hundreds of disappointed guests are left roaming the corridors, not sure what to do with themselves.
‘Toke Biz’ was one I was determined not to miss, so I got in line 20 minutes early. A weed bro lines up behind me, looking as though he wants to strike up a conversation. I’m careful not to meet his eye. Mercifully, two friendly-looking gentlemen join the queue behind him, and he takes his chance. “I’m going to school for horticulture,” he tells them enthusiastically. “I want to actually grow it, ya’ know?”
The smell of aftershave and chewing gum blends into a heady mix as we shuffle in for the talk. An old Japanese man, Ted Ohashi (real name, as far as I can tell), takes the floor to address a crowd made up mostly of millennials (never have I seen a generational divide so blatantly apparent than at the Real Estate Bitcoin Cannabis Wealth Expo — weed and cryptos for the kids, real estate for the Boomers).
As Ohashi very slowly reels off some marijuana facts everyone already knows, the bespectacled fellow next to me leans over to his friend and whispers, “he’s definitely on some Indica right now”. Pleased with his observation, he rolls a joint cheerfully, and I feel like smashing my head in on the chair in front of me.
After enduring fifteen minutes of ‘Toke Biz’, I head back out into the corridor to take a fresh reading of the atmosphere, walking past the Gene Wilder lookalike a third time. He’s still giving out high fives. I catch the backend of a panel discussion about cryptocurrencies in the main hall. A man wearing a poncho and a top hat adorned with a yellow feather is giving people Bitcoin investing advice using economics language (I later learn it was former child actor Brock Pierce). This is the world we now live in.
Oddly for what was billed as a real estate and bitcoin event, podcasting — another of those words currently putting dollar signs in people’s eyes — had also found its way onto the agenda. I line up for veteran podcaster Adam Carolla’s ‘master class’. A staff member excitedly asks if podcasting is how I’m going to make my millions. Carolla’s talk kicks off with some Boomer-tier humour and carries on with a sprinkling of celebrity namedropping, inane anecdotes and corny digressions. There are fewer suits in this crowd, and more people who believe their paths to fortune lie in the blazing uniqueness of their personalities. “How long should a podcast be?” asks one aspiring internet star earnestly.
At 3:30pm it’s time for party rapper Pitbull to give a passionate motivational talk followed by an intricately-choreographed four-song performance. The lights go out, energy in the room builds.
You know what kind of day it’s been when it’s left to Pitbull to restore your decimated faith in humanity. He is the first speaker I hear utter the words “hard work”, and tells us that “building hospitals and schools in broken communities” is what makes him happy, not money. As the crowd cheers, I begin to think, maybe there is hope. Maybe there is good in these people. Maybe they are human, after all. A woman offers me the empty VIP seat next to her, she too perhaps moved to kindness by his words.
Stallone is due out at 6pm. As the room waits in anticipation, I look around and see tired, confused faces. I imagine how they might act on all the advice they’ve been given today, whether any of these people will make life-destroying financial decisions based on the flimsy instruction of these charlatans.
For now, though, let them enjoy Rocky. “I was strung out of 13 schools in 12 years,” he tells the star-struck audience. “Back then they didn’t know what ADD was.” (What is it about that mental condition and this event?) “Remember, you only get one. FRIGGIN’. LIFE. PER PERSON!” he booms as the crowd’s mania reaches fever pitch. “Keep dancing, folks!”
It’s been a day of excitement and smiles all round. I feel like a spoilsport for having worn a fixed sneer, so it comes as a relief when I finally crack my first smirk, right at the death, brought about by a delicious bit of cringe comedy no one else seems to notice. A special ed teacher asks Stallone how kids with ‘learning difficulties’ can overcome challenges. “You mean kids with, like, ‘problems’, right?” he clarifies.
Still, $39 and ten hours of my life traded for one crummy smile. Probably not what the gurus at the Real Estate Bitcoin Cannabis Podcasting Wealth Expo would call a good return on my investment.