Much like Oscar-nominated “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” James D. Scurlock’s “Maxed Out” earns points for at least partly clarifying the daunting complexities of financial wheeler-dealings that might normally confuse even Wall Street insiders and biz-press commentators. Intelligent, informative and unusually entertaining docu errs only when it yanks too insistently on heartstrings while focusing on worst-case scenarios involving desperate debtors driven to suicide. Pic should generate interest on the fest circuit, and conceivably could connect with venturesome mainstream auds through theatrical and homevid exposure.
With equal measures of righteous outrage and sardonic wit, Scurlock illuminates the dark side of capitalism by examining the worst abuses of the consumer-lending industry. Impoverished rural families are lured into risking their homesteads by taking ill-advised bank loans while naive college students with limited incomes are encouraged to accumulate massive debt by credit-card issuers.
According to at least one on-camera expert, however, the customers most avidly desired by some lending institutions are middle-class folks who have already declared bankruptcy. Why? Because they’re the ones most willing to accept draconian interest rates — and least likely to be granted another bankruptcy judgment.
Harvard Law School economics professor Elizabeth Warren, the most eloquent of the pic’s many talking-head interviewees, recalls warning a group of mortgage bankers to be far more selective when it comes to lending big sums to high-risk customers. But her advice was rebuffed, she claims, because foreclosing on unpaid mortgages is great for the bottom line in the long run. “Consumer lending,” Warren notes, “is obscenely profitable.”
Investigative reporters, predatory debt collectors and a pawnbroker who caters to financially strapped yuppies are among the colorful supporting players in Scurlock’s true-life drama. Radio host Dave Ramsey, a Nashville-based, born-again Christian financial guru, draws upon his own experiences as an insolvent borrower while offering tough-love advice to his listeners. (“I’ve done stupid with zeroes on the end of it,” he admits.)
But even the voluble Ramsey occasionally is rendered speechless by tales of woe from overburdened borrowers who worry that, when it comes to maintaining minimum monthly payments, “death will be the only debt discharge.”