Big Debt Is Big Business in Maxed Out
- Friday, June 08, 2007
DVD Release Date: June 5, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: March 9, 2007 (limited)
Run Time: 87 min.
Director: James Scurlock
A 40-something Nevada realtor drives past McMansion housing developments in her Mercedes. “That’s what people want,” she says, with a knowing grin. “The bigger the better. And not just gates, but guards, too. As long as you’re in a master plan, though, you’ll be fine. Master plans—that’s the only way to go.”
She pauses then adds, “I just hope the interest rate doesn’t go up before we can move into ours. Otherwise we won’t be able to make payments.”
Thus begins Maxed Out, a documentary that takes viewers into the American way of life—debt. Because we can’t resist the lure of credit, this film insists, more than 10 million Americans declared bankruptcy between 1994 and 2004, and the numbers continue to climb. This year, more of us will go bankrupt than will divorce, graduate form college or get cancer.
The problem is that big debt is big business. In 2006, investors bought $7.5 billion in bad debt. Here, we see some of their scare tactics, through interviews with two cocky collectors who brag about all the money they’re making. “Hey,” one says. “Our clients help people out when their kid is sick or they’ve lost their job. But people have got to pay it back.”
True, although that’s easier said than done—especially when interest rates and fees far surpass the amount owed, often by as much as 300 percent. Writer/director James Scurlock (not to be confused with Oscar-nominee Martin Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame) doesn’t linger too long on the issue of personal responsibility, though, except for a few interview snippets with Christian talk show host Dave Ramsey.
Instead, he focuses on the concept of “predatory lending,” whereby banks take advantage of people with bad credit, extending credit and mortgages with incredibly high rates and fees. To illustrate his point, he interviews several families who lost their homes, as well as the mothers of two college students who were so in debt that they each committed suicide. Credit card companies like college students, who spend large amounts but have no way to repay—just like those who have already declared bankruptcy (because they won’t be able to do so again). Both are considered “preferred customers.” Punctuating these interviews are segments with experts like a Harvard Law professor and Robin Leach, of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Scurlock also launches into the problem of national debt. He offers a quick montage about presidential borrowing, beginning with Reagan (who took $300 billion from Social Security to pay interest on the national debt) and Bush, Sr. ($350 billion) to Clinton (“billions”) and Bush, Jr., who “upped the national debt limit by $800 billion.” No wonder, the director states, that by 2005, the Social Security Trust Fund had been totally depleted. The U.S. government spends more on interest, he states, than on homeland security, education and healthcare combined.
Scurlock’s Leftist bias is clear, just like his condemnation of Christian tithing (seen through a brief preaching segment). But he’s bitten off a huge chunk with this multiple-award winning documentary. He makes some very important points about the dangers we’re facing, as a nation and as individuals—with a warning that we’d all do well to heed. After all, the average American household has more than $9,000 in credit card debt and spends more than $1,300 a year in interest payments. Clearly, living beyond our means has become an acceptable practice.
The problem, from a cinematic point of view, is that Scurlock doesn’t seem to know which industry he’s taking on, so his points seem rather haphazard. Is it the federal government? Mortgage brokers? Banks? Credit card companies? The scattershot way that he approaches his material makes this unclear—and thus dilutes his message. He even throws in a few newsreel shots of Hurricane Katrina refugees as well as some comments from a pawn shop owner about soldiers not being provided with body armor (which was the case, but is no longer). He often appears to trivialize issues, especially the suicides, with a soundtrack of catchy tunes (like Coldplay).
Predatory lending is real. As a reporter in Atlanta, Ga., I interviewed family after family who had been duped by unscrupulous lenders. Because they were not even remotely aware of what they were signing, many lost their homes—which had, in many cases, been paid off. Of these victims, a huge percentage was elderly. The biggest surprise, however, was not the unscrupulous tactics used by these “sub-prime lenders.” It was the fact that these predatory lending institutions are often owned by the country’s biggest, most reputable banks. This powerful lobby explains why, to this day, the state of Georgia has been unable to pass legislation that fully protects citizens from these practices. Banks are also, not surprisingly, the biggest contributors to presidential campaigns.
Credit has become a complicated issue. On one side are those who are truly taken advantage of by unprincipled lenders, in an industry that cares far more about profit than anyone’s wellbeing. On the other side are those who just want a big screen TV, and who, much like Scarlett O’Hara, prefer to think about the bills “tomorrow.” Unfortunately, for many, tomorrow has come.
AUDIENCE: Adults and older teens
- Multiple featurettes including:
- “The Wise Use of Credit”
- “What is a Credit Report?”
- “Bankruptcy: A Life-Changing Experience”
- “Dave Ramsey on Personal Responsibility”
- “Americans for Fairness in Lending”
- Drugs/Alcohol: Little or none.
- Language/Profanity: A few obscenities and profanities, some strong, in the context of a stand-up comic ranting about finances.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
- Violence: Brief street scenes of Hurricane Katrina; various discussions of suicide, including teens who committed suicide; news clip of car being dragged from river, with voiceover talking about the bones of a body inside.
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