Consumer debt might seem, at first glance, a fairly unsexy topic for a documentary, but James D. Scurlock's "Maxed Out" presents a far-reaching...

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Consumer debt might seem, at first glance, a fairly unsexy topic for a documentary, but James D. Scurlock’s “Maxed Out” presents a far-reaching overview of the topic that will leave audiences intrigued and possibly outraged. Though the movie sometimes feels a bit cursory in telling its many stories (fleshed out in Scurlock’s book of the same title, now in bookstores), many of its points resonate strongly, in that hey-how-come-I-didn’t-know-that way that the best muckraking journalism can do.

There’s plenty of muck for Seattle native Scurlock to wade through, and his film blends stories from around the country in a casual, almost playful way. A Nevada real-estate agent cheerfully explains that her clients want massive houses with wine cellars and two laundry rooms, whether or not they can afford them. A debt collector, just as cheerful, describes how effective it is to shame debtors by calling their relatives and neighbors. Two sad-eyed mothers explain the desperation that caused their college-age children, ridden with debt, to commit suicide. (One tearfully says she had no idea her son even had debt. “I thought, he’s 18, he’s unemployed, who’s going to give him a credit card?”)

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“Maxed Out,” a documentary by James D. Scurlock. 86 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity. Scurlock will host Q&A sessions following Saturday’s 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. screenings. Read Moira Macdonald’s interview with Scurlock in today’s Northwest Life.

Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Brown, a warm and informative presence, describes the business of consumer lending as “obscenely profitable,” explaining that credit-card companies consider those who have declared bankruptcy to be ideal customers for future credit. They’ve demonstrated, she explains, a pattern of spending that can’t be easily broken.

Though Scurlock occasionally gets lost on tangents (a brief swipe at religious tithing seems off the mark), more often he scores; even his minor points add up. “Maxed Out” casually reminds us that the man appointed by President Bush to head a task force cracking down on corporate fraud was previously director of a credit-card company that ended up paying more than $400 million to settle charges of consumer and securities fraud. We’re reminded that the average household carries approximately $9,000 in credit-card debt, and that the bankruptcy rate is alarmingly high, despite legislation (pushed, as it turns out, by the credit-card industry) to make personal bankruptcy more difficult.

Though few answers are offered in “Maxed Out,” its message is clear: Beware of credit, and of the people who handle your money. As story after story piles up about predatory practices in the banking industry, a familiar refrain of rich-getting-richer, poor-getting-poorer sings out. A comedian points out that banks pay you for having a lot of money but charge you for having a little. “It costs $15 to only have $20,” he says, to bitter laughter.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com