Six years ago, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, a documentary made its world premiere to good reviews but little additional fanfare. “Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders” won a special jury prize but didn’t generate a bidding war worthy of breathless coverage in the trades. Still, it proved to be easily the most prescient film on the circuit that year, foreshadowing the subprime mortgage scandal, consumer debt crisis and financial meltdown that would capture headlines two years later.
Oh, and it introduced the world to a Harvard Law School professor named Elizabeth Warren.
Looking back, “Maxed Out” director James Scurlock says that the ills he limned in the film are far from solved. “What we went through in 2007 and 2008 was the Beta version of the real crisis,” he said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Los Angeles. Referring to the financial policies and regulations put in place by the Obama administration, he added: “What we basically did was press the reset button and in some cases made those problems much worse. Deposits are far more concentrated today because of the mergers the bailout enabled, so the money is in fewer hands today than it was then. Unemployment is nearly double what it was when the film came out. I just read that 1.4 million homes are now in foreclosure or in the foreclosure pipeline. And personal bankruptcies have come roaring back.”
Although most filmmakers are thrilled when their work stays timely, for Scurlock it’s a decidedly mixed blessing that “Maxed Out” — which can currently be seen on Showtime — remains so relevant. Noting that he could take former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan out of the film and put in footage of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and the speeches of President Obama, he said: “I feel like we just re-booted the same time bomb.”
Scurlock, who attended the Wharton School of Business and just completed writing “King Larry,” a biography of the late DHL Worldwide Express founder Larry Hillblom, said he’s among those observers who are disappointed in Obama’s response to the 2008 crisis. “We needed someone who could be bold,” Scurlock said. “And I think it’s hard to argue that that’s what happened when Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke are still advising and calling the shots. How these people still have any credibility, much less jobs, is beyond me. How can the president turn to these people to rescue us from a crisis that they should have been preventing?”
In 2008, Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job,” a dissection of the financial crisis, took home the Oscar — a full two years after Scurlock made his movie, which had a modest theatrical release. “What I’m proud of with ‘Maxed Out’ is that it was taking a look at the industry from the bottom up,” Scurlock said.
Although the film serves as an engaging, lucid primer for how Washington and the financial industry fashion economic policy, it’s the personal stories of people affected by those decisions that prove the most powerful.