Maxed Out (documentary)

James Scurlock saw “Super Size Me,” the fast-food exposé by the similarly named Morgan Spurlock, and was inspired to wage the same sort of all-out attack on the credit card industry. “Maxed Out” is the result, and like “Super Size Me,” it had a profound effect on me. I will never use my credit card at McDonald’s again.

What a ripe topic for investigation! Everyone has credit cards, and most people owe on them, too. Has any credit card customer NOT had a run-in with the lender at some point? Don’t we all secretly (or openly) hate the companies for their hidden fees and their arbitrary interest rates and their secretive methods?

Oh, but we’re addicted to credit. We count on it, we rely on it, we feel like we’re entitled to it. When a credit card application is denied, we feel humiliated and indignant. We DESERVE credit cards, darn it!

Scurlock recognized all this and looked into how the credit card companies do business, interviewing a variety of average citizens along the way. (I kind of hoped he would put himself through bankruptcy, the way Spurlock lived on McDonald’s for 30 days in “Super Size Me,” but no such luck. In fact, Scurlock doesn’t show himself at all in “Maxed Out,” using on-screen titles to relay narration instead of a voice-over.)

He interviews employees at a collection agency, where they’re proud of the sneaky ways they have of embarrassing you into paying on your overdue accounts. “We put people first,” says the agency’s top man with great sincerity, just before calling a target’s next-door neighbor in an attempt to reach — and humiliate — the target.

He interviews Liz Warren, a Harvard law professor with an expertise in bankruptcy laws, who describes the credit card industry as “obscenely profitable.” She says that when people file for personal bankruptcy, fully two-thirds of the money the credit agencies say they are owed is from fees and interest, NOT from the actual amount that the customer originally borrowed. Two-thirds!

He examines the way credit card companies go after new college students: kids who are just out of the house, eager to establish their adulthood, and not known for being particularly responsible. Obviously, a lender’s ideal customer is someone who WON’T pay his bill on time (thus racking up late fees), and who will keep it maxed out (thus racking up interest).

Some of Scurlock’s case histories are a little extreme, including a couple stories about people who committed suicide to escape debt, and one about a widow losing her house. The stories are touching, but they don’t represent the common American’s experience with credit card bills, and they start to tilt the documentary into the arena of propaganda.

Much more damning are tidbits like these:

– In 2005, President Bush signed a bill into law making it much harder for average citizens to file for bankruptcy (it’s still easy for corporations, though, thank goodness). The bill was written by MBNA, which, as the second-largest provider of credit in the country, obviously has a vested interest in not letting people off the hook for their credit card debt. Oh, and MBNA is also Bush’s greatest campaign contributor.

– In 2000, Providian paid a total of $400 million in settlements after being accused of shady business practices, including disposing of customers’ payment checks so the company could claim not to have gotten them and charge late fees. A member of Providian’s board of directors at that time, Larry Thompson, was selected to lead Bush’s white-collar crime task force in 2002 (which I guess is logical, considering he’s apparently an expert on it).

Scurlock’s agenda is to take lenders to task for predatory practices, but I do wish he had addressed the issue of personal responsibility — i.e., that if a grown-up racks up debts, he or she is obligated to pay them without expecting sympathy or a way out. There are two sides to that, of course; for some people, there is simply no way to repay their debts. But the film ought to have at least mentioned the idea that its subjects’ woes are their own fault, if only to dispute it. Better to show two sides of the “personal responsibility” factor than no sides at all.

But as to its major themes, of greedy credit card companies that will issue credit to anyone; that especially pursue people they KNOW are likely to go over their limits and fail to make payments; that sit there before congressional committees and say, with straight faces, that they have systems in place to make sure only good candidates are offered credit — well, anyone who’s ever tangled with a credit card company will come out of “Maxed Out” with boiling blood and a vow to get out from under their infernal thumbs once and for all. Credit card companies are only rich and powerful because we make them that way.

B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for a couple profanities, one F-word.)