In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” the photographer Nan Goldin tells a woeful, revealing, and in its way rather funny anecdote about how in the 1980s, when she first gathered up her photographs — casually transgressive images of her and her friends, who were often drag queens and addicts, along with shots of the assorted other people and situations she experienced as part of the hummingly squalid East Village New York subculture — and tried to shop them around to galleries and museums, they were roundly rejected, because the arbiters of taste, who were inevitably men, favored photographs that were black-and-white and composed in elegant meticulous ways. Goldin’s photographs were in garish verité color, set in environments that were so scruffy (messy bohemian apartments, ordinary people just lolling around) that it looked, to the gallery mavens, like there was no visual organization to them, no art.
This, with 40 years’ hindsight, is telling, because what you see now is that Goldin was nothing less than a postpunk Diane Arbus, and that the deceptive “randomness” of her images pulsated with life, and was the key to their power and mystery. In fact, she had an extraordinary eye for composition. Her photographs, which she organized into slideshows like “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” seemed caught on the fly, but they were portraits. They told the stories of the people in them, so the more you looked the more you saw. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” the fifth documentary feature directed by Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” “Risk”), is a portrait of Goldin, and a deft and satisfying one, though it’s not a conventional biography. Half of it is about Goldin’s life and work, and the other half is about the campaign she launched, beginning in 2018, against the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, the drug company that created the opioids crisis.
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“Created” is the essential word. If you watch Alex Gibney’s four-hour HBO documentary “The Crime of the Century,” or read Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” (Keefe is interviewed in Poitras’s film), you come to understand all the ways that the overprescribing of opioids, the intentionality of addicting people to them, was the cornerstone of the Sackler family’s business plan. The Sacklers, in effect, became narcotic drug lords with the cover of medical legality. Half a million people in the U.S. have died of opioids addiction, but it wasn’t until Goldin herself became addicted to OxyContin, in 2017, that she grasped the danger and learned about the multi-layered, calculating ways that Purdue Pharma had orchestrated the crisis for the sake of profit.
This outraged Goldin. But what she also learned is that the Sacklers were among the last half century’s most venerated art-world donors, giving millions and millions of dollars to the world’s most famous museums, in no small part to distract from their business practices by cultivating and polishing their image as philanthropists. Many of these institutions, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, had a Sackler Wing. And since the art world was Goldin’s world, she was filled with disgust, in a searing personal way, at the hypocrisy of the Sacklers’ image-laundering. As she says in the film, “They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.” She decided to launch a protest to bring the Sacklers’ sins to light, and to nudge the family out of the art world, which seemed, at the time, like the definition of a punkish David challenging a corporate Goliath. She was right to take on the Sacklers, but she was an artist, not a lawyer or a politician. How much, really, could she do?
Even as someone who has been gripped and outraged by the Sackler saga (that is: the story behind the story of the opioids crisis, a catastrophe that continues to this day), I wondered, for a while, if “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” was the movie about Nan Goldin I really wanted to see. I’ve long found her photographs extraordinary, and wanted to know more about her. The Sackler battle, valiant as it is, was less historical and less personal, the sort of thing that certainly belongs in a documentary about her, but maybe not to this degree.
Yet “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” takes the two elements — Nan Goldin’s art and her activism — and shows you how they’re actually woven together in richly suggestive ways. The film salutes her activism, presenting it as the lively tale of a whistleblower, but also uses it to reveal her art.
What’s profound, and incendiary, about “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is the way that Laura Poitras excavates the story of how deeply Nan Goldin’s photographs are rooted in trauma. There was always a life force to the photos; she started taking them in Boston in 1973, where she first bonded with what was then thought of as the gay subculture, along with the demimonde of drag queens (who could be arrested just for walking down the street), and her bone-deep recognition of the humanity of the friends she photographed was a tonic. But the movie goes back to tell the story of Goldin’s clueless, domineering, and repressive parents, and of her older sister, Barbara — a free spirit who came along in suburbia too early for the ’60s, and was institutionalized for having “impulses” we would now view as healthy. She committed suicide at the age of 18, in 1964 (when Nan was 11), by laying down on train tracks.
The whole shape of this tragedy haunted Nan Goldin. We see an excerpt from a psychiatrist’s report implying that the girls’ mother needed mental-health treatment far more than Barbara did. She was shut away for no good reason. It’s my feeling (though the documentary never states this) that Goldin viewed her sister’s death as, in effect, a murder. And what she was drawn to, first in Boston and then, in New York, amid the grungy world of the Bowery, were people who wore their violence and damage on the outside: in their clothing (torn and frayed; S&M leather), their drug use and exhibitionistic abandon, the look in their eye of godless and maybe glamorous hunger. She was photographing her own version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, only there was no Factory.
Lurking behind Goldin’s work is the sense of life itself as predatory. Her mother was a kind of predator, and that’s what touched such a deep chord in her about the Sacklers — that they were unjust authority figures replaying that oppression. And we also see how the currents of pain in Goldin’s work became explicit during the AIDS crisis, which decimated the community she was living in, and which she documented with a pitiless fervor and humanity.
Goldin herself was often pictured in her photographs, where she comes off as a postpunk pixie, with a light in her eye. She was having her adventures, though they were tinged with desperation. She worked in a strip club in New Jersey and reveals in the film, for the first time, that she became a sex worker in a New York brothel; that’s how she financed the purchasing of raw film. She was bisexual, appeared in the playfully subversive films of Bette Gordon and Vivienne Dick, became close friends with the reigning scenester and former John Waters star Cookie Mueller, and worked behind the bar of Tin Pan Alley, a Times Square dive run by women (they refused to have a male bouncer) that became an into-the-night community of the dispossessed.
But Goldin, who is now 68, also became something unlikely and inspiring: an artist of activism. We see the events she orchestrated to spotlight the Sacklers’ pedestal in the art world, and some of them are ingenious, like dropping hundreds of opioid prescriptions as confetti from the top of the Guggenheim Museum during an opening there. Early on, the museums ignore her; they don’t want to risk the loss of funding. But she keeps up the drumbeat, and when the National Portrait Gallery in London agrees, after a protest, to turn down a million-dollar donation from the Sacklers, the dominos began to fall, as other fabled institutions — the Tate, the Louvre — follow suit. Goldin’s goal was to have the Sacklers’ name removed from museum galleries. And by the end of the documentary, the Met, setting a seismic precedent, does just that. It’s a moment of triumph, even as the true subject of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” — and, in a way, of Goldin’s art — remains the lacerating cost of trauma.
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