'Maxed Out': Serious Matters Of Life and Debt

A debt collector gets down to business with a customer in
A debt collector gets down to business with a customer in "Maxed Out," James D. Scurlock's documentary on scurrilous lending tactics. (Truly Indie)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

"Maxed Out," a film about the consumer debt crisis, might as well be ripped from the headlines, in light of last week's stock market plunge (blamed in part on too many mortgages sold to high-risk home buyers). But here's the man-bites-dog part: This factoid-filled, talking-heads documentary -- by a business school graduate -- turns out to be amusing. And enlightening. And positively riveting.

As unlikely as it sounds that someone has made a taut and entertaining film about credit, that's precisely what James D. Scurlock has done with "Maxed Out," in which he delivers a punchy, well-reasoned account of America's huge problem with debt, how we got there and what the stakes are. (P.S., Scurlock is not the guy who took on the fast-food industry in "Super Size Me." That was Morgan Spurlock.)

This swiftly moving documentary -- adroitly edited by Alexis Spraic -- sweeps the nation from Las Vegas to Tennessee to New York as Scurlock interviews experts in the credit crisis, from both Harvard and the school of hard knocks. From the real estate boom in Las Vegas -- where two-dishwasher kitchens are de rigueur and banks are using the same accounting practices as Enron to finance loans -- to the junk mail come-ons we all find in our mailboxes every day, Scurlock demonstrates just how completely the concept of easy credit has seeped into Americans' lives, juxtaposing that culture with an instructional film from the early 1960s, in which two teenagers learn that credit is based on the "three C's" of character, capacity and capital.

How quaint! As we learn from Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren -- an expert in consumer debt -- big lenders today have thrown out those fundamentals, instead using their own lack of character and capacity for greed to deplete customers' capital, preying on our collective sense of entitlement and reaping obscene profits in late fees and usurious interest. And as one pawnshop owner suggests, underneath those SUVs and flat-screen TVs, the working and middle class are being crushed to the financial breaking point.

"Maxed Out," often uses grim humor to deliver the bad news: that banks routinely seek out the young, poor and chronically late-paying; that they're in cahoots with other powerful forces in government and business (such as the burgeoning field of debt collection); and that no one -- especially lawmakers whose biggest contributors come from the financial services industry -- seems to care. Particularly galling in this respect is Julie Williams, the acting U.S. comptroller of the currency and chief bank regulator, who delivers Orwellian apologies for the industry she's supposed to be overseeing, and Louis Freeh, former chief of the FBI and now a honcho at credit card giant MBNA (presumably, he makes sure there are state-of-the-art computers there, a luxury he didn't bother to acquire for the bureau under his pre-9/11 watch).

Scurlock presents case after case of mutual back-scratching between big business and government, with predictably infuriating results. (The good news is that the Democratic Congress is beginning to investigate the credit industry's most egregious practices; just this week the chief executive of Chase Card Services apologized in a Senate hearing for tripling a customer's bill through fees and interest.)

But "Maxed Out" reaches its most powerful emotional pitch when he turns his lens on the people behind the statistics, the victims of aggressive credit card and collection companies, a few of whom aren't around to tell their own story anymore. It's in these cautionary tales that the credit industry's sleazy practices go beyond simple good taste or even business ethics, and are revealed to be a matter of life and death.

"Maxed Out" is a film all high school seniors should see. And their parents. And their siblings, neighbors, best friends and acquaintances. You should see it, too. And spread the word.

Maxed Out (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company