The scourge of the opioid crisis has been documented in the press and in government reports; the culpability of the Sacklers, the multi-billionaire pharmaceutical family whose former company Purdue made the painkiller Oxycontin, has been successfully dramatized. The Sacklers are everywhere in Laura Poitras’ gripping documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but they are supporting players.
At its center is Nan Goldin, the 68-year-old photographer who was prescribed Oxycontin, quickly became addicted to it, found recovery through a replacement drug and then threw her energies into calling the Sacklers to account. Goldin became the most public face of the campaigning group PAIN, leading the charge into museums with Sackler wings, Sackler rooms and Sackler money to shame their well-heeled executives into cutting those ties. The Sacklers might have hijacked Goldin’s body, but she could at least work to turf them out of the places that held her pictures.
Laura Poitras has a great ear for a dissenting voice. Her first full-length documentary My Country, My Country was about ordinary Iraqis living under U.S. occupation; it brought her critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. It also put her on the Department of Homeland Security watchlist. Subsequent films have focused on the trials of two drivers who worked for Osama bin Laden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Citizenfour, which won the Oscar as best documentary in 2015.
In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival, she draws a thread through the phases of Nan Goldin’s life — as a child instinctively at odds with her frigid suburban family, as the famous chronicler of New York’s bohemian fringes and the Goldin we see here, the stalwart campaigner leading a chant rejecting the Sackler family’s patronage in the foyer of the Guggenheim. Poitras, the most meticulous of researchers in other contexts, doesn’t provide a great deal of detail about the opioid crisis or the Sacklers’ part in it. The fight — and Goldin’s fight in particular, as a surviving addict who has survived so many things in life — is the thing.
Goldin is a household name, at least in households with a passing interest in art. Her photographs of sexual and social outsiders are vivid and heartfelt, a nether world of sequins, sex, drugs, dissipation and genuine joy. For the people who see them in galleries, Goldin observes, they look like cinema stills. “Because most people think they are characters. But for the people being photographed, it’s just them.”
Less known was Goldin’s own story which, as she tells it here, was grounded in a childhood of arid affluence. Her older sister Barbara cared for her, giving her the hugs, love and stories that were beyond her prim mother, until she was diagnosed as mentally ill and, in her early teens, 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 full-blown rebellion, the way I did.”
Nobody was supposed to speak about it. Nobody was supposed to discuss anything that didn’t sound respectable. For an entire year, the child who became Nan Goldin didn’t speak at all. Her parents placed her in foster care; talking to Poitras, she suddenly remembers being physically sick with fear. Fortunately, she wound up in a progressive school — the only one that would have her, after many expulsions — where she was provided with a camera. “It was the only voice I had.” It also gave her a passage out.
Everyone involved in PAIN, the Oxycontin survivors’ campaign for redress, knows how crucial it is that one of the most recognized names in the contemporary art world is seen to be at the forefront of a battle within that world. It isn’t the war, which they would feel had been won if the Sacklers were in jail, but winning the battle is certainly something. One by one, the museums they target announce they won’t be taking the Sacklers’ tainted money any more. Their name starts to be removed from gallery walls. It may be a victory of largely symbolic value, but patronage in itself is symbolic, a way to make dirty money seem clean.
Just as crucial as Goldin’s place in that world, however, is her willingness to make headlines by talking and writing about her own addiction, describing the abjection of a life built around scoring and using without pulling her punches. What All the Beauty and the Bloodshed makes clear is that this is all of a piece with the photographs of drag queens, prostitutes and parties, the angry records of AIDS sufferers, the portraits that show glamour and tenderness where others might see the grotesque.
Poitras never shoots Goldin in a way that lionizes her or gives her the stature of a warrior queen, even though that would be easy enough to do with some emphatic angling and the right lighting. She puts her camera squarely in front of Goldin and shows her at work. In the process, she makes a stupendous work of her own.