Review: 'The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin' a Profile of Limitless Ambition

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 28, 2022

'The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin'
'The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin'  (Source:HBO Max)

"The higher the hair, the closer to God," the saying goes. The size of Gwen Shamblin's coiffure matched her outsized ego and seemingly limitless ambition, as shared in the five-part HBO Max docuseries "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin."

Executive producer Chrissy Teigen and Emmy Award-winning director Marina Zenovich had to reconfigure some episodes when the real world delivered an unexpected plot twist. Memphis native Gwen had always been a church girl, and later started a weight-loss Bible study program called Weigh Down Workshop. The program took off in Christian communities nationwide, so she founded her own church in a Nashville suburb in 1999.

Remnant Fellowship Church became popular in Brentwood, drawing national attention as well, until Gwen announced she didn't believe in the Holy Trinity, the cornerstone of Christianity. But she defended her own tenets, including God's direct punishment for sinful behavior. According to the church leadership, led by Gwen (who actually wasn't supposed to be a leader, as women should be submissive), God would rain down illness and death on sinners (and those she didn't like). Another troubling trend, as noted by several ex-members interviewed, is the church cult's way of dealing with member deaths: They ignored them, not allowing loved ones to grieve properly. She also kept a list of curses to employ against her critics.

In addition to her sky-high hair, Gwen "dressed like a stripper," lived in an opulent $7 million mansion, and ignored many of the modesty rules she enforced on her cult followers. She divorced her dull first husband David in 2018 to marry the hunky ex-Hollywood actor Joe Lara, former star of the '90s "Tarzan" TV series. Interviewees claimed that he played the part of Gwen's devoted husband as well as an untrained minister. Gwen's son Michael had a troubled relationship with the church, but her "mockingbird" daughter Elizabeth "worshipped her mom" and eventually moved into higher leadership roles.

The ex-members tell about Gwen and her lieutenant's cruel discipline to control cult members, and actions to minimize, deny, and rewrite any narratives unflattering to Gwen or her ministry. A gay member talks about his shameful treatment when he came out. All the church helpers — many of whom were forced to process all the diet book program orders — said they were unpaid, or paid below minimum wage. "Was this a business or a ministry?" one asks.

The church still exists, but a Beyond Zion group was created by ex-members to de-program and re-learn to "think for yourself and think freely."

Season Two of "The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin" airs on HBO Max starting April 28.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com