Maxed Out

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Are credit card offers jamming your mailbox? Ever wonder why banks think you’re worth the credit risk? It’s not your financial stability they’re after, says James Scurlock’s documentary Maxed Out, it’s the opposite.

They want you to get screwed.

To illustrate just how our concept of credit has changed in recent years, Maxed Out juxtaposes clips from educational films about personal finance against modern tales of debt-riddled woe. These otherwise quant and corny clips are prudent and humorous reminders: Credit, which was once viewed with caution — and meant for the fiscally responsible — is now designed for such high-risk folks as college students, low-income families and those who’ve declared bankruptcy. Maxed Out shows us how the notion of “preferred customer” is actually one who can’t pay their debts. See, the lending institutions make bank off late fees, penalties and sky-high interest rates.

Targeting those who can’t afford the American Dream is predatory and unethical, sure, but forget about any political intervention. Maxed Out reveals how the White House and many of the largest financial institutions — chief among them credit card issuer MBNA Corp (now part of Bank of America) — are bedded down together. A major President Bush campaign contributor, MBNA was the force behind the 2005 bill that made declaring bankruptcy more difficult. It’s shocking to watch political opposition unceremoniously dismissed and then see the president sign the bill all the while knowing MBMA wrote and paid for its own legislation. Clips of our leaders urging us to take “that vacation to Disneyland” and continue spending are a cruel joke.

When Maxed Out shifts to human stories of those destroyed by debt, it’s both infuriating and heartbreaking. One family’s mother disappears before the debt collectors start calling, which tips her kids and husband off to the massive debts she racked up. The cops suspect she drove her car into a nearby river. Her guilt and helplessness is real. This family’s story, and quite a few others here, put heartbeats to the casualties of an industry that offers trillions of dollars of credit each year. Credit disguised as a pass into the American Dream.

Director James Scurlock swimmingly covers a complicated subject in a brisk 87 minutes, from the heartless debt collectors and credit agencies to financial experts and lawyers. His is a frightening mirror of how debt is a way of life now for all of us. But Maxed Out feels like more than a call to arms. It’s like aversion therapy. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be evaluating your own financial situation, wondering why you purchased the ticket and popcorn with that old trusty credit card.

Opens Friday, April 20, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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