Saturday, February 9, 2008

Film Review: Maxed Out

Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders

"Consumer lending is grossly profitable. I can't even find the right word to give you here. Consumer lending is...obscenely profitable."

-- Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law professor

You need to see this movie. Yes, you. All of you. If you live in the United States, you need to see it. If you have money in a bank, you need to see it. If you own a credit card, if you're thinking of getting a credit card, if you know people with credit cards, you need to see it.

Maxed Out is a documentary about the wholly unethical -- and borderline illegal -- practices of credit card companies, consumer lending corporations, collections agencies, and banks. And it's brutal. Several of the families interviewed had family members commit suicide over debt they couldn't get out of, several more of the people interviewed had themselves considered suicide as a way out, and the interviewees at a collections agency just laugh and grin and say, "Yeah, sometimes we push a little too hard. But what can you do, right? They owe money!"

As documentaries go, Maxed Out is elegant in its simplicity. It eschews voice-overs for black-and-white silent movie cards, and even that device is used sparingly; for the most part, the filmmakers let the footage speak for itself, cutting back and forth between various interviews in a manner that's utterly devastating at times. When they focus on a quietly outraged family who was being harassed by a collections agent after their mother (who was deep in secret debt) disappeared, and then cut to the owners of such a collections agency as they smugly compare themselves to "pirates" who walk people as close as possible to the plank's edge before they pull them back again in order to "get what they want"'s hard not to feel sick. These kinds of juxtapositions make up the backbone of the film, and I was reduced to tears on several occasions. It's utterly unflinching in its examination of how lives are ruined over debt.

I was particularly impressed by how they couched the debt problem in a social and historical context. It's not just the credit card companies, it's not just the banks, it's not just the government -- it's everything, all of it, and it goes back generations upon generations. They touch on how personal debt affects not only the people involved, but the economy overall, which gives the film a bit more immediacy. After all, while you'd have to be pretty cold-hearted to write off the personal stories as "their problem, they deal with it, nothing to do with me," it's a lot harder to ignore when said personal debt issues contribute directly to a suffering economy and a skyrocketing national debt.

The film was made a few years ago, and they just barely touch on the sub-prime mortgage issue, mainly in a "man, we're all going to be in trouble if/when this falls through" kind of way. Now? The sub-prime lending problem is THE issue when it comes to our economy right now. It's all connected, which is a point the documentary illustrates beautifully again and again.

But they don't spend too much time on the national issues, which was the right call where this film is concerned. The personal stories are what make it hard-hitting, because they span every socio-economic group in the country. Watching it, it's impossible to say, "Well, that won't happen to me," because it CAN. It's a corrupt credit card corporation holding checks (and occasionally shredding) them so that their members rack up the late fees and penalties; it's a family trusting their bank to help them lower their mortgage rate only to discover that they now have to pay more and are going to lose their house; it's a middle-aged woman in a nice neighborhood losing her husband and ending up in foreclosure because she can't make the payments on her own; it's college students on their own for the first time, not understanding the fine print, racking up over $20,000 worth of debt before they turn nineteen; it's a clerical error in a credit reporting agency computer that declares a woman "deceased" and labels her a possible terrorist when she tries to get a loan for a truck; it's collections agencies calling your neighbors and relatives instead of you, because it's "more embarrassing" that way. It's all of it. And it can happen, has happened, will pretty much anyone.

I was talking to my dad after I watched the movie, and I was outraged that credit card companies continued to send applications and offers to the people who had killed themselves over their debt, calling them "valued customers" and insisting that they wanted their business back.

"It's SICK," I said.

"Yes, it is," said my dad. "And unfortunately, it's all automated. It's just a computer, looking at the numbers and sending it all out. They have no idea these people have even died."

And that, ultimately, is the point of the film. We're just numbers. To all of these companies, to the credit cards, the banks (did you know that several of the national banks own those "check to cash" companies that do payday loans?), the credit reporting agencies, the collections agencies...we're just numbers to them. We're not people. And the more debt we're in, the more money they make. They lose money on the people who pay their balance off each month. Those aren't the folks they want, not really. They want the people who can't afford to pay, because no matter how much they bleed them, the debt will still be there.

It's worth watching. Trust me.

"For every dollar they were asking for in principal, they wanted two more dollars in interest and fees that [the credit card companies] said they were owed. Think about that. That means for the average family who can't pay, they'll keep making payments of fifty dollars, of a hundred dollars...but they'll never pay those debts off. They will owe those debts until they die. Death...will be the only form of debt discharge that they will ever see."

-- Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law professor

1 comment:

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