By Sally Duros
Chicago Sun-Times Real Estate Editor
March 2, 2007 â€” Has the American Dream become the American Mirage because of the
powerful debt industry? James Scurlock thinks so, and he makes a substantive case in the film, “Maxed Out,” which starts a run at Chicago’s Century Landmark Theater March 16.
Scurlock, 34, a successful entrepreneur from Seattle, wanted to explore Americans’ preoccupation with luxury as a way to better understand how we, as individuals and as a nation, have accumulated record levels of debt.
What he discovered is that while many Americans still view credit as a privilege that we have earned, it is, in reality, a lucrative service that is “peddled” to us by a growing, prosperous debt industry. In addition, although we are free to choose whether or not to use a credit card, joblessness, lack of health insurance and other life situations often force an individual’s hand to reach for the credit card again, and again and again.
It’s a problem with significant crossover into home ownership, especially for those holding subprime mortgages who might reach for the credit card when they can’t make payments.
“This redefinition of a mortgage from a savings vehicle into an ATM is really striking,” Scurlock says. “Beneath those HSBC numbers of foreclosures are people losing their homes and savings.”
“I started out wanting to make a funny film,” Scurlock says in a phone interview. “I thought it would be this romp. Obviously it took a turn at some point. I did not expect that.”
Scurlock did this film because he wanted people to understand how the credit-card industry has transformed itself. And he wanted people to understand that “We have a choice of whether to participate or not.”
In the film, Scurlock talks with owners of a pawn shop, a debt collection agency, a Las Vegas Realtor and individuals whose lives were completely and tragically, shaped by credit-card debt. He also takes swipes at personal finance guru Suze Orman and the all-powerful FICO score, which he argues serves the lending industry not the consumer.
Don’t talk yourself out of seeing “Maxed Out” by telling yourself Scurlock is one of those lefties preaching victimization to the radical choir. He’s not.
Scurlock was voted the most conservative student in his high school, and attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He says that although “Maxed Out” has politics in it, it was not politically motivated.
“I don’t think this is a political issue,” Scurlock says. “This is a personal issue that crosses every line, whether you are a Republican or Democrat, black or white, rich or poor.”
“We traveled the country and we found people with crushing debt in every segment you can imagine,” he says.
“Everybody wants a strong country and a strong economy that’s rooted in reality,” he says.
“And everybody wants a strong banking system. Everybody wants to go to Bank of America or Citigroup and believe that they are going to be treated fairly. That is essential. That is the primary product that these companies sell. You trust them with your money, your livelihood and your savings. Your life really.”
“Now that is being blurred,” he says, “these huge banks are buying subprime lenders. Subprime mortgages are being commingled with good loans and being sold to Wall Street and suddenly no one can tell which is which.”
“I thought credit cards and debt was a pretty academic subject,” Scurlock says. “But this is people’s lives. This is oftentimes how you define yourself. This is a really emotional subject, a core part of our lives.”
READ MORE ONLINE
Discuss “Maxed Out” and read additional interviews by going to www.suntimes.com/webconnect and finding links to:
– The Right Place, our blog
There, you can also learn about Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit that can help you get out of debt.
Credit: The Chicago Sun-Times -COPYRIGHT- Â© 2007 Chicago Sun-Times.