Laura Poitras’ biography of Nan Goldin, photographer and anti-Sackler activist, shows us how great documentary filmmaking is done.
Laura Poitras’ latest film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, truly has everything you could want from a great documentary. It’s got a fascinating, articulate—even heroic—subject at its heart, in photographer and activist Nan Goldin. Her intimate photos of East Coast queer culture, and domestic function and dysfunction, marry splendidly with recent footage of her protests against the opiate-peddling Sackler family and her campaigns for sane American drug policy. It’s structured in a way to keep viewers engaged, alternating a chronological biography with Goldin’s current activism.
And what an engrossing biography! Like the title says, Goldin’s life has been one of beauty and bloodshed, and she aims for truth rather than tidiness as she recounts it. Born to a mother and father who never should’ve been parents, she was raised by her big sister Barbara until her suicide. From there, it was foster homes till she found her tribe among Boston and NYC’s underground queer culture. As a teen and young adult, photography literally helped her find her voice again.
Goldin turned to sex work to pay for her film, before a feminist Times Square barkeep offered her safer employment. Meanwhile, she struggled against the art world’s misogyny, being told in the ‘80s, “There’s no such thing as a good woman artist.” Despite the haters, her slideshows gained her the recognition she deserves. Her art now bolsters the permanent collections of museums worldwide.
Goldin broke new ground with her filter-free photos of queer culture and her own unconventional domesticity. If her subjects didn’t like her images, she threw them out. She wanted those photographed to feel proud and beautiful.
At the same time, her self-portraiture could be brutally frank. After escaping a violent partner, she included photos of her battered face in exhibits. Viewing this graphic evidence kept her from returning to her abuser.
(Poitras chronicles all of this, which means All the Beauty and the Bloodshed can be a tough film to watch. A trigger warning is warranted, for those sensitive to frank talk and visuals related to suicide, domestic violence, and drug overdoses.)
With a smoker’s gravelly voice and an etched face confirming a tumultuous life, Goldin is a camera-worthy subject herself. Her openness about her rough history has doubtlessly helped others adjust their own lives for the better.
This continues into the present. As an opiate addict in recovery, Goldin speaks eloquently to the toxic absurdity of American drug policy. Saved by buprenorphine, she campaigns for the wider availability of medication-assisted therapy and the proliferation of other harm reduction strategies.
More photogenically, Goldin spearheaded demonstrations against the Sackler family, the notorious opioid profiteers heading up Purdue Pharma. To keep its narrative moving, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed keeps the historical context minimal. Those wanting more info about the Sacklers and the opioid crisis would do well to watch Alex Gibney’s superb Crime of the Century. (Both films lean on journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the magisterial Empire of Pain, to tell us about these America-sanctioned drug dealers.)
PR masters, the Sacklers have donated heavily to museums around the world to clean up their reputation. Goldin is rightly outraged by this and drew from ACT UP’s legacy of effective protest-as-performance, to try and shame museums into separating themselves from the Pol Pots of Big Pharma.
After surrounding themselves with empty prescription bottles, Goldin and other demonstrators would collapse onto the floor in sizeable “die-ins.” Putting the Guggenheim’s interior ramps and atrium to good use, they tossed fake prescriptions into the air to create a snow-like “blizzard of prescriptions.”
Goldin’s advocacy group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, targeted institutions both containing her work and pocketing Sackler dollars, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, and the Louvre. She knew these actions might torpedo her career, as museums might choose to remove her photographs rather than the Sackler name off their walls. Goldin’s determination to do the right thing, damn the consequences, is laudable.
Poitras has a captivating story on her hands, and she tells it masterfully. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed was only the second documentary in the Venice Film Festival’s 90-year history to win its top award, the Golden Lion. Poitras won an Oscar for her 2014 Edward Snowden documentary, Citizenfour, and I’m betting she’ll win again.
Towards the end of the film, Goldin states, “The wrong things are kept secret, and that destroys people.” All the Beauty and the Bloodshed shows us, too, that our society moralizes about the wrong things, whether addiction, mental illness, or non-hetero sexuality—and that also destroys people. Goldin’s lifework and Poitras’ film are both great art and passionate manifestos against destruction.
(All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is currently playing in theaters, before it lands on HBO in 2023.)