A Horror Movie For Our Times

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, March 4, 2007

For this month's Color of Money Book Club selection, I'm doing something a little different.

I'm recommending both a movie and a book. And trust me: Both will have you rethinking the deep dependence so many of us have on credit.

The twofer this month is the feature-length documentary "Maxed Out" and a companion book, "Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders" (Scribner, $24).

The movie opens in select markets beginning Friday. To find out if the film is playing in a city near you, go to http://www.trulyindie.com and search under "Coming Soon." I think every high school at least should show the film to its student body.

James D. Scurlock, author and director of "Maxed Out," hopes to do with the overselling of credit what former vice president Al Gore has done for global warming -- elevate people's consciousness about a terrible threat to our existence. In this case, it's our financial well-being.

Both the book and film examine the proliferation of debt in America. Among others, Scurlock interviews debt collectors, a Harvard professor, pawnbrokers, people in debt and the people who have watched loved ones struggle with debt. I laughed at old black-and-white clips of students being taught how hard it is to qualify for credit. You have to have good character and a proven capacity to pay it back, an unnamed man tells a young boy and girl.

I was most moved by two mothers, Janne O'Donnell and Trisha Johnson, who sit side-by-side and talk about their children -- college students -- who committed suicide largely because of credit card debts. O'Donnell's son had amassed a debt of $12,000 on 10 credit cards. Johnson's daughter was a freshman when she spread her credit card bills on her bed and then hanged herself. She owed $2,500.

Scurlock's book takes you along on his journey to make the documentary. He takes a few missteps in the beginning when he criticizes radio talk-show host Dave Ramsey, who rightly encourages people to get out of debt and shun credit (except for a home mortgage). As in his film, Scurlock's snide references to tithing come off as useless potshots rather than insightful dialogue. People are not in debt because they tithe, as he seems to suggest.

But when Scurlock focuses on the larger issue of easy credit, he's right on the money.

"The federal government -- and the majority of Americans -- can no longer get by a single day without taking on additional debt," Scurlock writes. "And as more borrowing goes to simply pay off old debt, or to make interest payments, the new debt does little more than increase banking profits."

Here are some facts Scurlock points out:

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