From grief-stricken parents still receiving credit card offers for children who killed themselves out of debt-fueled despair to credit card companies embracing people who've gone through bankruptcy as some of their best customers, there's a lot of dark humor in the new debt documentary Maxed Out. But beneath the black comedy, bitter irony, and campy use of instructional films and public domain footage lays vast reserves of anger and righteous indignation. In Maxed Out, credit card corporations enjoy the power and respectability of titans of industry yet essentially engage in a glorified legal form of loan-sharking by targeting vulnerable people and doing everything in their power to ensure they remain in debt indefinitely.
James D. Scurlock's documentary casts a wide net in exploring our nation's addiction to credit cards and the booming industries that have popped up to exploit it. The filmmakers talk to everyone from the proprietor of a yuppie pawn shop to Gordon Gecko types who purchase debt from credit card companies at a steep discount then set about collecting it via high-pressure, frequently shame-based phone pitches rooted in queasy psychological intimidation. But the heart of the film lies in wrenching interviews with the families of people who chose to commit suicide rather than face a lifetime of debt. In these emotionally loaded sequences, the airy abstraction of debt takes on a shattering human face.
Maxed Out sacrifices depth for breadth and like a lot of low-budget documentaries, it's done no favors by its grimy, no-fi aesthetic. But the film's scattered ruminations on credit card mania add up to a powerful indictment of a culture of mindless consumption spinning out of control. Sure, the filmmakers probably couldn't afford expensive cameras and high-grade film stock but hey, that's what credit cards are for, right?