Looking Back In Dismay

Kaleil Isaza Tuzman has President Bill Clinton in stitches. Halfway through the documentary film "Startup.com," the 28-year-old is seated next to the president at a White House conference on the New Economy, poking light fun at one of the other panelists, a Harvard graduate school dean. Afterward, Isaza Tuzman slips Clinton his business card, and later boasts to co-workers, "I told him that if he moved to New York, he should consider a job with us." Just one month later, in May 2000, Isaza Tuzman's cockiness has vanished as he explains to his teary-eyed childhood friend and business partner, Tom Herman, that the board of directors wants him out. They don't think he's up to the job of chief technology officer. Herman is later escorted from the building.

The movie ends with the demise last January of their dot-com, GovWorks, which allowed users to pay taxes and parking tickets online. The company went bankrupt after burning through $60 million in funding. It was a fabulous flameout like dozens of others--except that it was all caught on film, due to a friendship between one of the filmmakers, Jehane Noujaim, and Isaza Tuzman. Noujaim hooked up with "The War Room" producers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, who set out to put a human face on the dot-com millionaires America had come to stereotype with a mix of admiration, envy and loathing. What we get, however, is a new wealth of voyeuristic detail that largely confirms our suspicions.

"Startup.com" is part of the first wave of films and books deconstructing the dot boom. "The Secrets of Silicon Valley," released in April by Berkeley, California, filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, reveals what they call "the dark side" of the boom: underpaid temps and hazardous assembly-line jobs. Next fall dot-bomb poster boy Stephan Paternot, 27, cofounder of theglobe.com, is publishing memoirs for which he already has a movie deal. Brad Pitt is said to be in line for a Hollywood morality tale, "Silicon Valley," about a young banker caught up in the boom.

These retrospectives are adding a touch of gray to a story so far told in black and white. "Startup.com" follows its subjects from bedroom to boardroom without narration or comment. If it has a moral, it comes in the words of one of three girlfriends of Isaza Tuzman's who come and go over 18 months. "With their cuff links, their little pens, their credit cards, they look like such grown-up gentlemen," she says. "But you know what? They're not."

As GovWorks unravels, we're left with some admiration at least for Isaza Tuzman, whose redoubled efforts to rescue the company leave his partner unmoved. Even if the company goes under, whines Herman, "we'll still live in nice places." Herman has publicly complained about how he comes off in the film. Is it fair? A former associate, requesting anonymity, calls Isaza Tuzman "a person of enormous talent," Herman "mediocre in every respect." Repeated requests to interview Herman were denied. Kathryn Wylde, one of the New York venture capitalists whose money these two were spending, has no regrets. She knew GovWorks had only a sketchy business plan, but the "Internet was clearly going to have a huge impact," and "the only way to get started was to experiment and to get behind these young people."

One of the most celebrated money magnets was Stephan Paternot. When he and a partner took theglobe.com public in 1998, the stock leapt 700 percent on day one, a record. Investors went wild. Women wooed Paternot by e-mail. CNN filmed him in plastic pants, dancing on a nightclub table with his model girlfriend. But last August the business partners ceded control of theglobe.com to a more seasoned executive, and Paternot limped off to write his reflectively self-mocking memoir, "A Very Public Offering." "I feel like I'm 50 years old inside my brain," says Paternot. "And I'm deteriorating rapidly just from the exhaustion."

There's more to come than the tales of former child CEOs. Among the so-called secrets Kaufman and Snitow divulge is that Hewlett-Packard printers are assembled by armies of immigrant workers based not in China or Mexico but in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Feds are now investigating Wall Street for giving politicians the inside track on IPO stocks beyond the reach of little guys, which could provide grist for a slew of new movies. As for fallen dot-comers, their story isn't over, either. "The last thing Tom or I wanted to do was to throw our experience away and run and hide in the corner," says Isaza Tuzman. They are back in business as the Recognition Group, a consulting firm for distressed dot-coms. This time they've hired an older, outside CEO.