Dir. James Scurlock
(2006, Not Rated, 87 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Maxed Out is not an astonishing film in and of itself — it’s a little unfocused at the start — but in conjunction with other recent films it opens my eyes to a hidden world I’m better for having seen, no matter how painful the glare. There is a growing 21st Century canon of documentary film that constitutes a required curriculum for modern American life.

I’m thinking of three films in particular, about money in America: Sicko, about the health care industry; I.O.U.S.A., about the national debt; and now 2006’s Maxed Out, about the credit card industry. Each film, in its own way, goes about explaining how the mass of Americans are at the mercy of money: those who have it, those who owe it, those who demand it, and those who wield it as a political weapon. The problem with our capitalist democracy is that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economics is rather an illusion, because if you’re wealthy enough, you can pay a Congressman to pass a law that not only provides your boots but also appoints someone to pull the straps for you. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Exorbitant health care costs that go unchecked. Deregulation of financial markets. All under the guise of capitalist progress. But this isn’t capitalism. It’s plutocracy.

And I haven’t even watched the Enron documentary yet.

According to Maxed Out, credit card companies and their subsidiaries are like bookies. They target the customers who are the most likely to make late payments and then charge obscene interest rates on the debt. It seems counterintuitive, which is probably why I frequently struggle to wrap my head around it. It seems to be a compound paradox; see if you can follow. Credit card companies make the most money from customers least likely to be able to pay. When those debts reach critical mass, they’re sold to other companies. What, you may ask, does a company do with the bad debt it buys? Take it for walks? Display it on the coffee table? Serve it with a white wine sauce? What could possibly compel a business to purchase the lack of money?

I’ve wondered. Maxed Out shows us, and I think I understand. Director James Scurlock takes us inside People First Recoveries, whose only service is to collect money on the bad debts they purchase using every tool at their disposal, and they are not wanting for tools. They leverage your secrets. They harass you, your friends, your family, your neighbors. They squeeze information out of police departments to use against you. As yet they don’t break knee-caps, but that’s only until their knee-cap reform bill passes Congress.

The young entrepreneurs who started People First are shocking, not in what they say so much as how casually they say it. They must not realize how they sound, or else they would have dropped out of the film and filed an injunction to have the footage burned. If they truly believe their message, they may qualify as sociopaths according to the DSM-IV.

MDNA, a bank holding company and George W. Bush’s greatest campaign contributor, wrote a bill that makes it more difficult to file for bankruptcy, which is a debt-holder’s last resort; Bush passed it. A director of Providian Financial, which paid $400 million in fraud settlements from 2001 to 2002, was appointed corporate crime czar by the same president. That’s kind of like hiring Clyde Barrow as head of bank security.

My favorite of the talking heads is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Professor and the author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. When she explains the financial industry, she appears stricken, all at once mortified by what she’s describing as she’s describing it. During her interviews, I feel a kinship; the more I learn, the more I understand how she feels. Warren is currently the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel to oversee the banking bailout; in an appearance on The Daily Show last month she looked occasionally like a deer in headlights, and while answering Jon Stewart’s questions she seemed about eight steps behind the curve. I was simultaneously angry and sympathetic; if she can barely keep up, what chance does the average consumer have?

Scurlock mixes the expert testimonials with personal horror stories that highlight the human cost of predatory lending. The smaller-scale stories distract from the facts in the early going; I wanted less emotional content and more hard-boiled information. But as they are woven through the film they build to a devastating emotional climax.

Consumers must also be accountable for themselves. There are those who are thrown into debt by a sudden death or illness or bureaucratic error, but others are also the victims of poor choices. Two heartbreaking stories describe the suicides of college students who dug themselves too far into credit card debt and saw no way out. There are two lessons here: (1) Credit card companies recklessly exploit the naivete of eighteen-year-olds who haven’t learned responsibility, and (2) eighteen-year-olds should be more responsible. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and if a credit card company offers you one, the lunch may be the only thing they leave you with.