Nan Goldin Vs. the Sackler Family

‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ is a beautiful documentary about the intersection of one artist’s work and her activism

What is life like on the ground for people in another culture? That’s been the bread and butter of photographers for decades, almost never with the kind of beauty and grace Nan Goldin brings to her photos.

As Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed demonstrates, Goldin has an almost impossible ability to envelop us in other people’s lives. She does it via the poetry of her lens and the anger in her heart that illuminates the atrocities happening around the globe. Poitras dives into those images in this masterful, heart-wrenching film.

As she surveys the artist across a half-century of political, artistic and cultural upheaval, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed reveals itself to be more than just another “and then this happened” documentary. She split the film into seven chapters, but could just have easily split it into many genres: there’s an elegy for a dead sister; a drama about a lost daughter; a thriller about a deaf industry; a comedy about a queer society; and most importantly, a profile on a woman who sees art and activism as one and the same.

Straddling the line between collage and cinema verite, Poitras tracks two different threads across each chapter. On one side, the filmmaker tracks Goldin as she joins an activist group called P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now); on the other, she tracks Goldin as she works her way up the ranks of Boston’s art scene. Along with other artists like Paul Waters and David Armstrong, she started out in a world of gay clubs, dive bars and hard drugs–there’s a reason Poitra features the Velvet Underground twice on the soundtrack—and there are plenty of fun, outrageous moments in these early years. 

The movie then shifts to Goldin’s time in the 80’s, her breakout in the 90’s and her breakthrough in March 2018, when Goldin walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate a victory against the Sacklers, a pharmaceutical company that pushed Oxycontin to more than 10 million people. The Sacklers are also, not incidentally, some of the world’s leading art donors. Herself a recovering addict and influential photographer, Goldin makes it her mission to take down the corporation and put a face to the victims who died of oxycontin–a mission she also brought to the AIDS virus and to racial injustice.

Though Bloodshed courses quickly, the film doesn’t leave anything out, following both Goldin’s internal flights, including her addiction to opioids, and her external ones, like the time she marched for the rights of gays with HIV. Goldin is hesitant to go through her testimony again, but she’s committed to the justice that she and so many others deserve. 

The issue at hand is justice, but it’s also freedom. Goldin is fighting a person’s right to choose who they want to be, and who they want to become. The fight  feels urgent, and this film gives that fight its proper urgency. Poitras brings the battle to our doorsteps, and makes sure we bear witness to the same abuses as her subject, so we never stand idly by again.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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