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Consumers hit their limits in `Maxed Out'

Documentary leavens credit-card horror stories with humor while calling for more government oversight.

March 16, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Documentary filmmakers have warned us: Fast food, global warming and corporations are killing us. But credit cards? In "Maxed Out," director James Scurlock -- an unrelated devotee of "Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock -- uses jaw-dropping stories of credit-induced woe across the country to argue that the industry is destroying lives and needs immediate, stepped-up government regulation. After all, this is a country where the average family owes $9,000 in credit-card debt.

There is a moral to this story, but at times it also feels like a romp. Scurlock, whom we hear but never see, is a clean-cut Seattle native now living in Los Angeles, a former student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School who racked up debts of his own while starting an ill-conceived restaurant franchise business. He clearly relishes traversing the country, chatting with debtors, debt collectors, a Las Vegas real estate agent, a Harvard Law School professor, and childhood-idol Robin Leach, former host of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

As he roams, Scurlock muses about what we have allowed the credit-card industry to become. His vision of debt is messy, emotional, political and raw -- in other words, realistic, as anyone who has ever bounced a check, had their card declined or answered the repo man's call can attest. Frame by frame, Scurlock shows how the national pastime of racking up debt is prompting divorces, homelessness and suicides.

To document his subjects' stories in greater detail, and with more supporting evidence, Spurlock also published a book by the same name last week, an entertaining read laced with ironic observations (after visiting credit-industry watchdog Bob Manning, Scurlock notes the professor's beret, cramped office and paranoia, then riffs: "So begins my indoctrination into the underground world of financial-industry dissidents").

In the film, Scurlock paces himself well, alternating humorous exchanges with debtors' stories. The debtors alone would be tough medicine.

Each is a study in despair. Take John Brown, a poor black man with the IQ of a second-grader living with his mother in a shack in Macon, Miss. The two lost their house to a predatory lender. Mike Hudson, a former reporter at the Roanoke (Va.) Times who found Brown and is interviewed in the film, likens his predicament to sharecropping, a latter-day "debt slavery."

Scurlock, who confesses to using MasterCard and American Express, insists he didn't set out to find the most extreme cases of lending malfeasance. He says he just investigated common credit binds that could be prevented with improved government oversight: grandmothers on fixed incomes granted high-interest, or "sub-prime" loans; college students inundated with credit card applications; widowers seduced into cash advances, refinanced mortgages and bankruptcy.

"There are stories behind every one of those tragedies. When someone loses their home or declares bankruptcy, which means they lose everything, that's a life or a series of lives that have been lost in a culture that defines people by their financial status," Scurlock said after a screening here of the film, which opened last week.

Scurlock splices his footage with snippets of vintage black-and-white instructional films on personal finance and a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack (the film opens and closes to the tune of Queen's "Under Pressure"). It's a recognizable conceit, (see also: "Super Size Me," "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," "The Corporation" and "Fahrenheit 9/11"). While the film gets bogged down at times in the genre, dwelling on clips of President Bush exhorting the nation to spend in the wake of Sept. 11 or a congressional committee giving credit watchdogs short shrift, Scurlock wisely returns to the personal stories and the most dramatic fallout of the credit crisis: debt suicides.

When Scurlock presented his film to the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys last year, some asked why he focused on suicides.

"All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once," Scurlock said. Lawyers in the crowd backed him up, describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, "If you don't help me, I've got a gun in my car." "It is Dickensian," Scurlock said. "Go back to the 1920s when businessmen were waiting in soup lines and jumping off buildings. It's tragic."

Yvonne Pavey, 59, an Indiana wife and mother, hid her debt from her husband, then disappeared after he ordered their credit report. Scurlock films Pavey's daughter as she walks beside the Ohio River near her mother's house, explaining that police believe Pavey drove the family van into the river. The expanse of dark green water seems to swallow her small figure.

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