The AMEX-Backed Film 'Spent: Looking for Change' Ignores Major Part of U.S. Financial Problems

When we were asked to check out Spent: Looking for Change a new documentary about four American families struggling with the traditional financial system, we were sold as soon as we saw that Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) was attached as an executive producer. But we didn't really pay attention to the fine print—that the film was sponsored by American Express. And now we find ourselves in a bind.

After watching the film at the Hammer Museum on Thursday and then listening to the Q&A panel discussion that talked about the "documentary" (and a new AMEX product), we're finding it difficult to objectively review a film that seems only little more than a 40-minute informercial/ad.

First the positive: Directed by Derek Doneen, the film features good storytelling, examining the lives of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is something that nearly 50 percent of Americans do. We meet families whose struggles mirror our own or a lot of people we know:

  • Alex and Melissa of Scituate, RI, rely on Melissa's income as an executive assistant when Alex was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis several years ago. They have two sons, one of whom is autistic and in need of special schooling.
  • Debbie Artaza is a young handbag designer from Philadelphia, who runs her own business while trying to pay off more than $100,000 in student loans.
  • Justin Dickenson now owns a video-production business in Houston, but made financial mistakes when he left home to live on his own at age 16. He wants to buy a house (in cash). but can't because of his terrible credit history.
  • Tiffany Richardson is a nurse in Texas, who took a year off after 18 years of nursing, to take care of her cancer-stricken mother full-time. When the recession hit, Tiffany was unable to find work and was forced to drain her savings and 401k.

But Spent only specifically takes aim at a small part of the problems in the U.S. financial system. From the AMEX press release: "...one in four U.S. households who are not well served by the traditional banking system and rely instead on services like check cashers, payday lenders and pawn shops to meet basic financial needs. The costs for these services can add up, with the average underserved household spending ten percent of their income on fees, the same as the typical American family spends on groceries."

What the film doesn't talk about at all, however, is the issue of credit card debit. On average, each U.S. household with a credit card is plagued by more than $15,000 in credit card debt. You know, little things like this (from Time magazine, earlier this year):

And on an individual level, many Americans are in a precarious financial position. According to a survey released Tuesday by the financial monitor Bankrate.com, 28% of Americans have more credit card debt today than they have in a savings fund. That means that if one quarter of Americans even wanted to use their savings to pay off their debts at this moment, they wouldn’t be able to. Just 51% of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt, the lowest percentage since Bankrate begin tracking the issue in 2011. According to the Federal Reserve, overall credit debt increased by $11 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013 to $683 billion, the highest levels since 2011

Yes, that might be against AMEX's self-interest and reason for sponsorship, but if they truly want to reform the banking / financial system and make it more inclusive, shouldn't the problems be examined holistically? Even the film's advocacy site doesn't address the credit issue.

But more importantly, can Spent: Looking for Change be really called a documentary? Decide for yourself. The film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.