It was exactly one year ago that James Scurlock debuted his documentary Maxed Out, about the suffocating crush of credit-card debt, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. Since then he's written a just-published companion book (Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders), gone on the lecture circuit and become to plastic money what Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock is to fast food. (It's just a coincidence their names sound sort of the same.) And he was waiting for his film to get released, which is happening this very moment: It opens at the Inwood Theater on Friday. But if you can't wait till then, there's a free, first-come-first-served screening at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Magnolia Theater.
Scurlock, incidentally, used to live and work in Dallas: In the late 1990s, he published the industry newsletter Restaurant Investor (you can find him here talking about Razzoo's, if you're so interested). And, as he explained during our conversation last year, a big part of Maxed Out was inspired by his stay in Dallas a few years back.
"I thought it was going to be more like Super Size Me, where we went and found all of these silly Americans who were young, fabulous and broke...like the Uptown millionaires in Dallas," Scurlock said. "So I thought it was going to kind of be this romp through consumer culture, and there is a little bit of that. But we found out pretty soon the real story was how the financial industry is making its profits off of people who can't pay the money back and really preying on people and finding customers who declared bankruptcy or right there on the edge you know and just exploiting them. I think the most shocking thing was the revelation that credit card companies want as their customers people who can't pay their bills."
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Indeed, among the most-cited stats in the film, the average American family carried about $9,300 in credit-card debt in 2005. That info also comes from Dallas, from the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
Go see Maxed Out. No kidding. It will change your life. --Robert Wilonsky
Trailer for Maxed Out