Filmmaker James D. Scurlock pulls back the curtain on American debt in “Maxed Out,” a documentary “you can’t afford to miss,” according to promotional efforts.
New to DVD, “Maxed Out” crosses the country interviewing and following people who have debt, sell debt, collect debt and examine debt. The mix is fascinating and tells many sides of our collective and individual debt narratives.
On one hand, you have Robin Leach remarking matter-of-factly that people are fascinated with the rich and famous and want to be like them. On another hand, you have Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School saying that “consumer lending is obscenely profitable.” On yet another, financial peace guru Dave Ramsey emphasizes personal responsibility for one’s money decisions. On still another, now-deceased Jerry Falwell preaches the “spiritual mathematics” of tithing.
Flitting in and out of these personalities are still others: pawn brokers, debt collectors, mothers whose debt-ridden children have committed suicide, as well as a debt-ridden mother who considered but refused suicide because she won’t “do that to my kids.”
Scurlock uncovered some archival gems from the nightly news about national and consumer debt. He shows us a comic talking about his “grossly insufficient funds.” He checks in on the national debt clock. He shows us that the average U.S. household has more than $9,000 in credit card debt and spends more than $1,300 a year in interest payments.
The personal stories are painful: families devastated by suicide, bankruptcy, embarrassment. Remarkably, Scurlock makes debt interesting. His collection of interviewees is carefully chosen—and here I speak not of the brief appearance by former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer. Harvard’s Warren is especially good at explaining the magnitude and depth of the problem, as well as the financial incentives for the credit industry to keep behaving as it is (i.e., targeting people who are willing to make minimum monthly payments forever).
Scurlock counter-weights Warren’s gravitas with collection agents Chris and Bob from Minneapolis, who apparently think of their business as a football game with a scoreboard and special strategies (like motivating their debtors by attacking their pride, integrity or honor).
The film offers its fair share of irony: a pawn broker from Seattle notes that his business, too, borrows money … from Wells Fargo … which funds Cash America … one of his competitors.
We’re also shown footage from the floor of Congress, where some members protest new legislation that made bankruptcy more difficult to file. They claim it favors credit card companies at the expense of children.
Scurlock has said his film is “about the way we live and the way we treat one another”—specifically, how we do so through leveraging assets. To make all this intellectually and emotionally understandable, the filmmaker had to include both the owing and the owed. While his sympathies fall more so with those who owe, he doesn’t bypass the reality that the term “borrowing” at least used to imply also giving back.
“Maxed Out,” just under 90 minutes, ran the film festival circuit in 2006 and now appears on DVD with several extras: extended interviews with attorney David Szwak and Elizabeth Warren about credit reports and bankruptcy, respectively; Dave Ramsey in an inspirational presentation about personal responsibility; a promotional video from Americans for Fairness in Lending; and an 11-minute “educational” film, “The Wise Use of Credit,” produced in 1960. This last feature, in black and white, is a bit of historical hilarity. Driving the narrative of this “Leave It to Beaver”-esque production is “Mr. Money,” who explains credit to two youngsters.
“Maxed Out” deserves an audience. Be part of it, and watch the documentary through the credits for updates on people and stories featured in the piece itself.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s Note: The comic uses several swear words.
Director, Writer and Producer: James D. Scurlock
The movie’s official Web site is here.