Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders

"Very Good"

Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders Review


Director James D. Scurlock shares more than just a rhyming last name with documentarian Morgan Spurlock, whose Super Size Me went after the fast food industry with the same zeal that Scurlock's Maxed Out targets credit card companies. Instead of experimenting with debt as Spurlock did with unhealthy eating, however, Scurlock uses others' case studies to reveal the often tragic impact of unhealthy spending and the industry and government that encourage it.

We begin with Beth Naef, a Las Vegas real estate broker who herself is about to move into a luxurious home she will be unable to afford if interest rates rise. Cut to Robin Leach hanging out in the opulent Venetian Resort Hotel Casino talking about how no one would watch a show called Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown. Americans want to have things whether they can afford them or not.

Scurlock soon points out you can build an entire industry around this fact, especially if you target well. Mark Mumma pays $715 for a $116 exercise device (that doesn't even work) as a result of interest, late fees, and overlimit fees charged by Providian, which had sent him a credit card application after he'd declared bankruptcy. Harvard law professor Ellen Warren, Scurlock's most compelling talking head, explains that a vice president of MasterCard once told her that they love people who've declared bankruptcy because (a) they can't declare it again and (b) they have what he termed "a taste for credit," meaning they are "willing to make minimum monthly payments forever."

To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, "Debt, for lack of a better word, is good."

Scurlock then delves into the industry of debt, how it can be bought and sold. He interviews debt collectors and the people they harass. He interviews a lawyer who lays bare the deliberately unresolved inaccuracies that go into determining FICO scores. He interviews family members who have lost loved ones to suicide over their debts. And he shows that it's now the basic necessities, not exercise equipment, that are driving people into debt spirals.

But that's not the scary part.

Scurlock goes on to look at the country itself as a debtor nation, interviewing Helena Durst, daughter of the man who built the debt clock in 1988 and showing how since then, no one has really paid much attention. Just like many of the families he profiles, America shuffles money around, borrowing billions from Peter to pay Paul (Peter, in this case, usually being Social Security). He cuts frequently to Alan Greenspan sounding the financial alarm like a modern-day Eisenhower trying to warn us about the military-industrial complex.

Scurlock highlights something more akin to a financial-governmental complex. It was MBNA, not an oil company, that was President Bush's top campaign contributor. Scurlock points out that after the aforementioned Providian paid out $400 million to settle fraud charges, Bush appointed one of its directors to be a corporate ethics czar.

From a purely visual standpoint, Maxed Out does not flow with the ease or flair of a Michael Moore exposé, but the low-budget aesthetic almost seems appropriate given the subject matter. In terms of context, it would have been nice to see a bit of historical perspective. How did FICO come to power? At what point did lenders see profit in sub-prime lending? How did America become a debtor nation?

Though Maxed Out doesn't answer these questions, it does show us the crisis at hand with staggering statistics (more people will declare bankruptcy this year than will get divorced, graduate college, or get cancer) and moving stories (one woman disappears after her credit history catches up with her). Scurlock shines a light on one of the most pervasive (and potentially disastrous) problems affecting our society today, and to look at the current filmscape, he's just about the only one.

Beanie Babies, yes!



Facts and Figures

Run time: 90 mins

In Theaters: Friday 10th March 2006

Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 6

IMDB: 7.3 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: James D. Scurlock

Producer: James D. Scurlock

Also starring:

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