How we got in over our heads

Times Staff Writer

Creditors knocking at your door? Up to your eyeballs in credit card debt? Besieged by offers for even more credit cards despite your inability to keep up with the ones you already have? Wondering how this is even possible?

Filmmaker and author James Scurlock wants to tell you in the timely documentary “Maxed Out,” a biting critique of the credit card industry. Drawing on the stories of individuals from across the country, Scurlock etches a bleak view of the state of personal debt while taking aim at the predatory strategies of lenders, the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of collection agencies and the cozy relationships between recent Republican administrations and major financial institutions.

Americans, if you haven’t heard, are racking up personal debt in record numbers. Reportedly, the average family has more than $9,000 in credit card debt. It seems that it has become a staple of the evening news to rattle off statistics such as these as financial gurus like Suze Orman ply us with promises of money makeovers and admonish us to repent or else.

So while the premise of “Maxed Out” may not surprise, some of the details will. Scurlock connects the dots between major banks and their practices in targeting those most vulnerable -- college students, the elderly, the previously bankrupted -- and makes a compelling case that something needs to be done. Many of the stories depicted are tragic, and some are plain strange.


For a film dealing with numbers, it’s surprisingly nimble, balancing interviews with people who have been personally affected and financial experts, members of the finance industry and even a surprisingly sympathetic pawnbroker. Scurlock does well to counter the more dire aspects of the film with a razor-sharp sense of humor.

The most troubling facet of the world depicted in “Maxed Out” is that it’s yet another avenue from which the nation’s wealth flows from the poorest to the richest. It’s easy to dismiss the problem as one of personal responsibility -- especially if you’re debt-free -- but everyone should be worried about the two-tiered economic structure it fosters, one in which there is no room for a middle class.

“Maxed Out.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.