America is a nation of addictive personalities. Whether it's the lust for liquor, nicotine, gambling or even caffeine, just about all of us are hooked on one thing or another. In his new documentary Maxed Out: Hard Times and Easy Credit in the Era of Predatory Lenders, James Scurlock explores America's addiction to something potentially more destructive than all the others combined: debt. It's a problem that touches everyone, from the impoverished residents of the inner cities to the politicians in our nation's capitol, and most of us seem to be in denial about it.
Maxed Out is truly commendable, if only because it aims to shatter that denial and shed light on a growing problem. Credit card debt isn't exactly the sexiest subject to tackle in a documentary, especially without the help of a big personality like Michael Moore (or even Mr. Excitement himself, Al Gore) in front of the camera. Instead, the film relies on scores of interviews with people from across the debt industry spectrum, including credit card company employees, consumer advocates, debt collectors, pawn shop owners and others, to build its case. The result is both a stinging indictment of lending industry and its practices and a wake-up call to those unaware of the consequences of our increasing reliance on debt to finance our lifestyles.
The subject matter is alternately infuriating and heart-wrenching. Interviews of young debt collectors talking passionately about the job's appeal are juxtaposed with images of a debt-riddled woman gone missing and presumed to have committed suicide. But the focus isn't limited to consumers; Scurlock devotes a great deal of Maxed Out to the federal government's staggering national debt and the maddening refusal of our elected officials to do anything about it.
In his approach, Scurlock focuses much more on the victims than the perpetrators, preferring to rely on the testimonies of consumers. While this makes for maximum emotional impact, it detracts from the film's intellectual credibility.
Though consistently interesting -- and illuminating -- throughout, Maxed Out at times feels excessively manipulative, especially when dealing with the plight of those who suffered as a result of heartless creditors. The most egregious example of this occurs when an indebted widower discusses her thoughts of suicide while accompanied by a song from Coldplay -- the go-to guys for maudlin, introspective songs that instantly inspire spontaneous and uncontrollable weeping.
And while it's extraordinarily heartbreaking to hear the story of an aggrieved mother whose teenage son killed himself over mounting credit card debt, the suicide says as much about rampant consumerism and bad parenting as it does about the practices of the lending industry.
Conversely, Maxed Out doesn't go deep enough in its probe of predatory lenders. That the documentary never once mentions Ameriquest -- the country's largest "sub-prime" mortgage lender -- is beyond puzzling. After all, the company is notorious for its aggressive selling techniques, and recently agreed to pay a staggering $325 million to states in a nationwide settlement regarding countless charges of discrimination and predatory lending practices.
It's akin to leaving Muhammad Ali out of a story on boxing's greatest heavyweights.
Maxed Out: Hard Times and Easy Credit in the Era of Predatory Lenders is now playing in select theaters.