All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras‘ superb, vital documentary about the life and times of internationally renowned artist and activist Nan Goldin, made its New York premiere at NYFF60. A maverick Bohemian photographer, Goldin pushed the envelope when most didn’t know one existed. Poitras’ searing documentary targets how an artist’s vision and honesty can be used as a powerful weapon to impact entrenched institutions of oppression and death.
Without ambitious intention, Goldin rose from the depths of the New York “No Wave” artistic movement. From rock bottom she rose to become one of the great photographers of the late 20th century. Poitras shows how throughout her life’s journey, Goldin embraced controversy and used her art effectively to stand up for marginalized communities.
Community Advocacy from Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Importantly, Poitras shows Goldin’s involvement in her community’s fight against AIDS. Goldin organized the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. The exhibit manifested the outcry from a New York City community overwhelmed by the AIDS epidemic. Mostly personal outlooks revealed by sculpture, photography and installations exposed the virus’s intimate destruction. Countering mainstream culture, the exhibit highlighted the trauma of those suffering. Indeed, it broke apart the silence and paranoia characterizing the Reagan administration’s negligence concerning the AIDS crisis. And it helped change public opinion, bringing much-needed empathy to the sick and dying.
Poitras’ intimate look at the artist reveals the arc of Goldin’s emotional journey. Strikingly, she begins with Goldin’s 2017 involvement with the nonprofit P.A.I.N. Dedicated to publicizing the magnitude of the OxyContin opioid epidemic, the group highlights the Sackler family’s egregious and amoral encouraging of doctors to prescribe the painkiller, lying about its powerful addictiveness. As a part of the story, Poitras reveals Goldin’s own addiction to OxyContin. In one clip we see the photographer testify before Congress about drugs to help individuals get off the painkiller.
Beginning with Goldin’s staged protest against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharmaceuticals at the Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum, Poitras then moves to flashbacks. Poitras uses the most salient of her recorded interviews for Goldin’s voiceover narration. Selecting family photographs and home movies, Poitras uncovers events that fostered Goldin’s identity.
An Alienated Childhood
Frankly delving into her strained childhood, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed relates Goldin’s alienation from her dysfunctional family. An outsider who rejected her suburban upbringing, Goldin discusses the relevance of her teenage sister’s influence. Indeed, the tragedy of her sister’s depression, ineffective treatment and suicide hovered throughout Goldin’s life. Also, the suicide redirected her attitude about herself and her parents. Tying together those early years with her own rebellion against the status quo, Poitras reveals how these elements shaped Goldin’s artistic vision.
With each segment of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Goldin’s collaboration with Poitras remains key. As she invites Poitras to sit in on P.A.I.N. meetings, we get the most intimate understanding of Goldin’s and the group’s fervency. Through her own slideshows of her groundbreaking photography exhibits, Goldin’s arc of development as an artist and human being predominates. Not only does Poitras capture the artist as influencer, she shadows Goldin the activist. As a result, we understand the convergence. Poitras encourages us to become inspired by how Goldin has become a mover and shaker by the film’s conclusion.
The Greatness of Poitras’ Work
Poitras’ work highlights Goldin’s intersection of past and present. We learn about her friends and partners during numerous interviews supported by a trove of photographs. Poitras reconstructs the flavors of “No Wave” New York City. She contrasts Goldin’s personality then, with her evolved ethos now.
Most importantly, we see amazing rare footage of Goldin’s personal fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid overdose crisis. In some of the most striking scenes, we watch Nan Goldin and members of P.A.I.N. stage a die-in at the Metropolitan Museum. It is one of a number of events that Goldin and P.A.I.N. used to alert the public that cultural institutions must reject donations from the Sacklers.
The Sackler Family
The owners of the now bankrupt Perdue Pharmaceutical donated their money to museums who named buildings and wings after them. On the one hand, the cultural generosity translated from dollars to art remains remarkable. However, 500,000 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses hidden by Sackler “good will.” Goldin’s group exposes via effective protests how the Sacklers are behind a scurrilous, whitewashed legacy of pain and death.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed even includes members of the Sackler family during a Zoom meeting as P.A.I.N. attempts to hold them accountable. We note Goldin’s continued war against the family’s lack of accountability for their crimes. As a part of this mission, she advocates for the destigmatization of drug addiction. The Sacklers, who used 80 lawyers to fend off litigation, still retain their fortune in various accounts and investments. Unfortunately, their financial empire and political connections at the moment place them above the law. However, they may go the way of Big Tobacco. Nothing is forever.
The documentarian’s portrait makes one fall in love with Goldin, if you didn’t know her before. And if you know and prize her work, you love her all the more for her stand against the Sackler family. Poitras’ film is an engaging, inspiring work. It emotionally defines how personal tragedy can lead to artistic greatness — and how that greatness can then direct and influence political activism to empower many lives.
A NEON release, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is screening at Lincoln Center.