The scourge of the opioid crisis has been documented in the press and in government reports; the culpability of the Sacklers, the billionaire pharmaceutical family whose former Purdue company made the painkiller Oxycontin, has been successfully dramatized. The Sacklers are everywhere in Laura Poitras’ gripping documentary All the beauty and the bloodshedbut they are support players.
At the center is Nan Goldin, the 68-year-old photographer who was prescribed Oxycontin, quickly became addicted to it, recovered through a replacement drug, and then devoted her energies to holding the Sacklers to account. Goldin became the most public face of the PAIN campaign group, leading the charge toward museums with Sackler wings, Sackler rooms, and Sackler money to shame their wealthy executives and sever those ties. The Sacklers might have kidnapped Goldin’s body, but at least she could work to get them out of the places that had pictures of her.
Laura Poitras has a great ear for the dissenting voice. Her first full-length documentary. my country, my country they were ordinary Iraqis living under US occupation; It brought him critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. He also put her on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list. Subsequent films have focused on the trials of two drivers who worked for Osama bin Laden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden in citizenfourwhich won the Oscar for best documentary in 2015.
In All the beauty and the bloodshed, screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival, draws a thread through the phases of Nan Goldin’s life: as a girl instinctively at odds with her frigid suburban family, as the famed chronicler of New York’s bohemian fringes and the Goldin we see here, the loyalist activist leading a chant rejecting Sackler family patronage in the Guggenheim lobby. Poitras, the most meticulous of researchers in other contexts, does not provide many details about the opioid crisis or the Sacklers’ role in it. The fight, and Goldin’s fight in particular, as a surviving addict who has survived so much in life, is the key.
Goldin is a household name, at least in households with a passing interest in art. His photographs of sexual and social strangers are vivid and candid, a nether world of sequins, sex, drugs, dissipation and genuine joy. To people who see them in galleries, Goldin observes, they look like movie stills. “Because most people think they are characters. But for the people photographed, it’s just them.”
Less well known was Goldin’s own story, which, as she tells here, was based on a childhood of arid wealth. Her older sister, Barbara, took care of her, giving her the hugs, love and stories that were beyond her prissy mother, until she was diagnosed with mental illness and, in her teens, was sent to an orphanage. . A couple of years later, she committed suicide. Barbara was a rebel at heart, says Goldin. “She just didn’t have the power to go into a full-fledged rebellion, like I did.”
Nobody was supposed to talk about it. No one was supposed to discuss anything that didn’t sound respectable. For a whole year, the girl who became Nan Goldin did not speak at all. Her parents placed her in a foster home; talking to Poitras, she suddenly remembers being physically sick with fear. Fortunately, she ended up in a progressive school, the only one that would accept her, after many expulsions, where she was provided with a camera. “It was the only voice she had.” She also gave him a ticket out.
Everyone involved in PAIN, the compensation campaign for Oxycontin survivors, knows how crucial it is that one of the most recognizable names in the world of contemporary art finds himself at the forefront of a battle within that world. It’s not the war, which they would feel was won if the Sacklers were in jail, but winning the battle certainly is something. One by one, the museums they target announce that they will no longer accept the Sacklers’ corrupt money. His name begins to be removed from the walls of the galleries. It may be a victory of mostly symbolic value, but the sponsorship itself is symbolic, a way of making dirty money look clean.
Just as crucial as Goldin’s place in that world, however, is his willingness to make headlines speaking and writing about his own addiction, describing the abjection of a life built around scoring and using without beating around the bush. What All the beauty and the bloodshed What it makes clear is that this is all in one piece with the photographs of drag queens, prostitutes and parties, the angry records of AIDS sufferers, the portraits that show glamor and tenderness where others might see the grotesque.
Poitras never shoots Goldin in a way that exalts her or gives her the stature of a warrior queen, though that would be easy enough to do with an emphatic angle and the right lighting. She puts her camera directly in front of Goldin and shows her at work. In the process, she does a terrific job of her own.