An internationally celebrated photographer and filmmaker, Nan Goldin is renowned for her gritty and candid images of city life and queer sexuality. But in recent years, she has become a powerful activist and leader in the fight against the opioid epidemic: an experience she dealt with firsthand after developing a dependency on Oxycontin prescribed for an injured wrist, and the subject of Laura Poitras’ soulful 2022 documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
Although the film follows Goldin’s battle with the Sackler family, and their relation to the arts and Oxycontin, it is really about the artist herself. Poitras gives us behind-the-scenes access to P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy organisation aiming to expose the Sackler family and end the whitewashing of their name through donations to galleries, universities, and museums. This is the contemporary challenge in Goldin’s life. But what the film is truly about, at its core, are the defining moments of an artist’s career—as her famous photography reels play out to a vulnerable narration. The first revisits Goldin’s fraught family dynamic. She grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in the Boston suburbs, and in 1965, Goldin’s repressed lesbian sister Barbara committed suicide at age eighteen—a part of her life that is shown as the biggest influence for Goldin’s career in the documentary. Goldin began her career as a photographer of the Boston ‘Queens’ who could, in her words: “recreate themselves and manifest their fantasies publicly.” By then, she was exploring her own sexuality,and her immersion in the transgender communities she photographed became the DNA for her candid future work; shots that operate with an iconic, shameless intimacy.
In 2018, Goldin was driven to action when she read a New Yorker article that exposed the Sackler family’s ownership of Purdue Pharma: the company responsible for producing and marketing the powerful opioid Oxycontin she was once addicted to. This is when Goldin responded by launching P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), a time that she recounts in Poitras’ film. Over the next four years, Goldin staged a number of influential public protests: including a dramatic “die-in” protest in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City that led to the museum suspending its financial links to the Sacklers. Goldin’s activism has resulted in the family’s name being removed from buildings and institutions worldwide, and she has used her platform to share her story of addiction and recovery. But with three million Americans still addicted to opioids, Goldin continues to fund P.A.I.N.’s campaign through her film and photography work.
A lyrical documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a must-see. It weaves together Goldin’s personal history, her career as a photographer, her activism for AIDS awareness and her successful campaign against the Sacklers. Capturing Goldin’s Boston edge, it highlights the photographer’s commitment to destigmatising behaviours that polite society stands in judgement of—be it sexual freedom and drug abuse—and celebrates the voices of the marginalised groups Goldin fell in love with. Poitras’ portrait is an inspiring reminder of how powerful film can be in changing the status quo. Although dynasties will invariably continue to profit off sickness, the film offers a testament to a different, but far stronger, painkiller: compassion.