Maxed Out

2007, Movie, NR, 86 mins


A Wharton School of Finance dropout and scabrous critic of the way we live now, self-taught filmmaker James Scurlock offers an eye-opening expose of how debt has become the American way of life — and death.

Scurlock tackles this huge subject in 87 short minutes, primarily through a series of journalistic, on-the-road-style interviews with a disparate group of people either consumed by debt, gambling with debt or making a killing on other people's debt. Likable Las Vegas real-estate agent Beth Naef sells properties in so-called "master-planned" communities like "Seven Hills," a theme neighborhood of overgrown McMansions named after "someplace in Italy." In such places, where the price of houses continues to skyrocket, the American dream of home ownership has become a dangerous game of real-estate speculation. Would-be homeowners build through a mortgage system banks call "loan to value," which bases the value of the loan on the future value of the finished house. It's a variation on the same idea behind the "mark-to-market" system of accounting that made Enron execs a fortune before destroying the company, and is now being used to encourage people to build bigger, incur more debt and pay higher penalties when interest rates go up and they can no longer afford the payments. Scurlock also visits Richard Johnson and Chris Winkler, enterprising young men who, after discovering there's money to be made in other people's misery, started their own debt-collection agency. Between gloating about the joys of coming home at the end of each month with enough money to buy a new car or go on a fancy vacation, Chris and Richard detail their collection methods, ensuring themselves a special place in hell. But Sculock's biggest targets are megabanks and credit-card companies, institutions whose business has become selling the debt that has become a powerful source of revenue, thanks to hidden fees that lead to larger principals and, consequently, larger penalties and higher interest rates when the debtor fails to pay. Saddest of all are the casualties of this increasingly predatory system, which ruthlessly preys on those least likely to make their payments — young college students, the mentally ill, the poor and the elderly. Scurlock interviews Janne O'Donnell and Trisha Johnson, mothers whose college-age children hung themselves when their credit-card debt spun out of their control, and Kathi Ballew, an Ohio housewife whose mother disappeared shortly before a credit report exposing the tens of thousands of dollars in gambling debts she'd accrued via her credit card was due to arrive. Kathi says the police are waiting for the Ohio River to lower in hopes of finding her mother's car and body.

In between exposing how inaccuracies in carelessly compiled credit reports can destroy your credit and your life, and the ways the Bush administration has consistently supported banks and credit-card companies in their drive to bilk consumers for as much money as possible (making bankruptcy off-limits for the poor and middle-class has proven to be a huge boon to the money lenders), Scurlock also looks at the debt culture that has sprung up around such tragedy, including an interview with the hugely popular Nashville-based, born-again Christian financial expert Dave Ramsey. A little more background into exactly how consumer lending became such big business might have shed a bit more light on what went wrong and how it can possibly be fixed, and may have eased the note of despair on which the film ends. At times funny, but mostly tragic, Scurlock's film is important viewing for any who owns a credit card without realizing that it's a wallet time bomb. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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