All the Beauty and the Bloodshed: a remarkable portrait of power and protest

Winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Laura Poitras’s illuminating film charts the life of the photographer Nan Goldin and her efforts to hold the Sackler family to account for their role in the US opioid epidemic.

21 September 2022

By Nicolas Rapold

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022)
Sight and Sound

“The wrong things are kept private, and it destroys people,” the photographer Nan Goldin says in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the tremendously moving and illuminating new documentary from Laura Poitras. Goldin’s art specialised in portraying young outsiders who might not ordinarily be in the spotlight, but in 2017, she wrote an extraordinary article in Artforum that announced a new focus: her near-fatal struggles with addiction to the painkiller OxyContin and the organisation, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), she was founding to hold the drug’s purveyors to account. No longer, she maintained, would the Sackler family and its biggest company, Purdue Pharma, be able to make millions of dollars off their helplessly addicted customers, who died in the thousands from overdoses – at least, not without their business being exposed to the world, especially the art world, which benefited from what Goldin called “blood money”.

It’s not every day when an artist of Goldin’s stature puts herself on the line against such a powerful foe, but PAIN is only one strand in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a beautifully constructed film that shuttles through multiple narratives and histories: Goldin’s traumatic family past, the friend-families she found in Boston and New York, the personal and social circles explored in her soul-baring work, and the present-day efforts by PAIN to target museums like the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with protests. Learning of Goldin’s growing up with a beloved sister who went on to kill herself after being institutionalised, we feel something of the grace in her photography, capturing the marginal worlds where she herself lived in the late 1970s and 80s, exchanging the denial maintained by her parents for an ethos of openness.

Goldin’s smoker-tinged voiceover lends an intimacy and lack of illusion to grittily poetic lines (“My roommates were running away from America”). She guides us, with the occasional audible question from Poitras, through her repressive Boston suburban upbringing, through her friendship with David Armstrong and the demimondes of queer-friendly bars in decidedly unfriendly times, and onto the cross-sections of New York artist milieux (like an apartment on the Bowery where “we used to fuck in the elevator”), with a freshness impressive in a documentary landscape already saturated with cross-sections of New York artist milieux. Poitras is aided by glimpses of film and video by Vivienne Dick and Bette Gordon, and of course by Goldin’s own photography; Goldin also is credited with consulting on the music. The movie doesn’t seek to romanticise the direr straits of Goldin’s history, such as the boyfriend who savagely beat her.

Poitras doesn’t press the point, but there’s a sense that Goldin made art in portraying the love and angst and pain around her, while the Sacklers’ drugs made money off pain and annihilated personhood in the process. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the activism of the fearless New York artist David Wojnarowicz, perhaps planted a seed for Goldin, who would loom large as a protector and supporter of friends, much as her sister (and later, figures like the writer and frequent John Waters collaborator Cookie Mueller) had loomed large for her. Poitras’s film understands the life-and-death urgency of the artistic pursuit, and illustrates the possibility and necessity of forming one’s own communities; that includes PAIN, which is shown planning meetings at her home and in synchronised actions both at the Guggenheim and the Egyptian Temple of Dendur installation at the Met.

Poitras won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015 for her film about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, and there are glimpses of intrigue here in the surveillance of Goldin’s group. (This surveillance is suspected to have been ordered at the behest of the Sacklers, some of whom are shown in a ‘telephonic’ court hearing about their conduct during the pandemic, sitting impassively in windows on a computer screen.) Poitras’s work (The Oath, 2010; Risk, 2016) has long shown an interest in secrets and secrecy, plumbing their dimensions, testing the tools, connecting the dots to shadowy parties. The conclusion is often unsettling – our lives are far less private than we ever suspected – but the upshot can be profound: trust becomes all the more sacred. Because of the nature of her work, Poitras is put into the position of a confidante. Perhaps that is why the filmmaker is able to channel so much, so movingly, from Goldin, unifying the personal and the political in a kind of communion.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is in UK cinemas from 27 January.