In the days after 9/11, I remember turning on the television and seeing politician after politician deliver the same message: keep spending! George Bush wanted us to go to Disneyworld. Tom Daschle wanted us to buy that new suit we'd been thinking about. I thought back to my fifth-grade history book. Didn't it teach that when we're at war, we sacrifice, not spend? The economics of our culture have clearly changed and I wanted to find out how and why.

I have been reading The Wall Street Journal since junior high school and was a Benjamin Franklin Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the oldest business school in America. So making a film about money wasn't a stretch. But I soon realized that I had no idea how the modern financial industry really works—it's predatory, Dickensian and absurd, all in one. From then on, I knew that Maxed Out would be about the way we live and the way we treat one another. It's about where we set the bar for the least fortunate among us.

We're all led to believe that people get into financial trouble because they are irresponsible, but I've learned that most people are getting in trouble because the banks and credit card companies are setting their customers up to fail. Why? The more credit they give us, the more credit we need. When we inevitably fall behind, they can charge the huge late fees and the over-limit fees and the stratospheric interest rates that drive their profits.

My goal was to paint the story of our debt-fueled culture in broad strokes. The more people I met, the more I realized that this is an emotional issue as well as an academic topic. So many people are being abused and manipulated by the financial industry but so few are asking "is this what we really want?" When the film is released, I'd like to challenge the assumptions about the way we live our lives and shift the debate. Do we really want to be in perpetual debt? Do we really want to have a sharecroppers' society, as Warren Buffett calls it? Citigroup billboards shouldn't be the only voice we hear in this debate.