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Maxed Out

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Perhaps you've heard -- Americans are in debt, and it's getting worse. James Scurlock's documentary Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders, now available on video, is a scare ride through the cascading woes of personal debt. Credit reports, foreclosures, pay-day loans, hard-ass collection agencies, re-financing schemes and zillions and zillions of credit-card offers: For too many people, it all adds up to trouble.

Scurlock's cameras check in with scholars, industry players and a handful of debt-ridden citizens. Individuals' stories are alarming, but what's most disheartening is acknowledging that exploiting the vulnerable is an awesomely profitable and widespread business, involving not only brand-name banks we expect to be good citizens but also our lawmakers, whom we pay to look out for us.

It's hard to find humor in this panoply of sad stories, so for entertainment Scurlock relies on sardonic intertitles and some laughable vintage footage. His best mash-up is using the scare vibe of a late-1960s pusher-on-campus educational film to set up a segment on college-endorsed credit-card shills.

On the downside, Scurlock bites off huge topics, and simply grazes past them in the 90 minutes. There's little acknowledgement that credit, used wisely, can be positive, and I wondered why Scurlock didn't investigate one of the problem's roots: educating consumers. College kids rack up huge debts, but what do we teach kids in high school? Additionally, what about more explicit analysis of what consumers "need"? Wading through marketing to root out true necessities remains our personal responsibility, even if we're all vulnerable to desire.

Still, there's no denying Maxed Out's larger warning: that we're all affected by the cumulative effect of the debt industry. And, it's not just our bad spending: The U.S. government is in worse debt than we are, with the majority of its revenue used to pay down interest, in lieu of services we once enjoyed.

It's a scary, depressing scenario, and perhaps not one's first choice for Saturday-night rental. But Maxed Out offers many worthy, eye-opening segments. Watching it, I actually felt a sweaty panic, but it is better to stare into the abyss and confront its tough realities than to simply ignore it and hope it'll go away.

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