Maxed Out (2006)

“Where’s the exit strategy for this?”

The documentary Maxed Out tackles the subject of credit and debt in America, and while this is an long-overdue topic for examination, the film’s shotgun approach to its subject leaves a lot to be desired.

The abuses of credit card companies, predatory lending practices, and luxury homes so HUGE they require elevators are just some of the subjects this film covers. The film is considerably weakened by the superficial treatment of its subject matter. For example, there’s a nice segment on how credit card companies target college students. At first glance, we get the innocuous old song and dance about students getting a credit card and needing to learn about credit, but then it’s explained that credit card companies grant credit based on research regarding the future income of the college graduates. This is significant information, but then it’s augmented with brief clips of Chris and Luke, the college spokesmen for First USA. This adds nothing of significance to the film. Then there are numerous short segments of people who state they were ripped off by their mortgage companies. These repetitive segments are virtually meaningless without a context. Yes, these homeowners have horrible stories to tell, but without the detailed facts and figures behind the new mortgages they sought (how did they get into the situation where they needed to refinance, for example?), there’s little impact.

The film’s emphasis is on those who have so little, they use credit to get by until one catastrophic event sends them over the precipice. This only paints half the picture. What about those who use debt as a means of grasping at the lifestyle they think they should have? The film began with this theme (the mega homes in Vegas, and Robin Leach), but then veers away from the idea of debt as a lifestyle choice, and instead emphasizes those who have to use credit as a means to hobble to the next payday.

Overall, I think the film just tried to cover too much (and I’m still not sure exactly how the footage of Hurricane Katrina survivors fits into the debt equation). There are the local colour segments–a behind-the-scenes look at debt collection, and the real estate agent who’s building a vast house she’s not sure she can afford. But these tasty parts of the film are in contrast to the vague generalities the film offers. There are so many interviews with various people who’ve got the shaft from loan companies, credit-reporting agencies, and mortgage companies, but these interviews really tell us little that we don’t already know. Obviously, director James Scurlock was trying to provide specific examples, but these stories added nothing to the film. I would have preferred to see some additional research on exactly when lending practices began to change, for example.

My favourite sections of the film were the interviews with the owner of Yuppie Pawn, but the quote about “Spiritual Mathematics” from Jerry Falwell was priceless. Extra features include: Wise Use of Credit, What is a Credit Report, Bankruptcy, Dave Ramsey on Personal Responsibility, and Americans on Fairness in Lending.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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