The first time I ever saw a Nan Goldin photograph, I was twenty years old, standing in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I was enamored with photography —carrying my own expensive Nikon through the galleries so I could shoot the collections myself — and it arrested me in the middle of the floor. “Jimmy Paulette on David’s Bike,” from 1991. A picture so full of life in a way I had never seen before. Representative of a community I was only just beginning to understand, a sheltered kid from Pennsylvania who was studying abroad and living on her own for the first time in her life.
I think about that photograph a lot, both as an artist and as a consumer of art. Goldin is and was a “street photographer,” for lack of a better phrase, of a different kind, away from the Lynn Goldsmiths and the Annie Leibovitzes that I had known previously — evocative of scraped knees and burnt out cigarette ends and things that felt innately painful but real. So, to me, it’s no surprise I was drawn to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’s new film about Goldin’s life and work, which seeks to bring both her past and her present into the limelight.
Goldin’s work spans from the early 1970s into today, dealing primarily with sexuality and intimacy, as well as LGBTQ subcultures, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the ongoing opioid epidemic. Academy Award winner Poitras lays the photographer’s entire career out on a platter for viewers, with the distinct advantage of having Goldin’s massive archive of visual work at her fingertips. It’s this work that primarily carries the film, with few talking heads aside from Goldin herself, and the final work is presented almost like an art exhibition itself, as if you could split each of the film’s unique sections into pieces and separate them by room, videos playing on every wall as you glide through Goldin’s life and work.
She tells the story of her life, from her childhood and the death of her older sister to her time coming up in the Bowery in New York, a neighborhood that produced some of the most iconic artists of a generation. She talks of her highs and lows, of the friends she loved and lost and the lives she lived, traveling and taking photos, of bartending and sex work and overdoses and recovery, and a million things in between. It’s visceral as all hell, and one wonders if she wasn’t supernaturally blessed with nine lives like a cat, or if it’s entirely possible to do all of that with just one, and most of us are wasting our damn time.
Much like Neon’s other major documentary release this year, Moonage Daydream, hearing Goldin narrate her own story feels like the only proper way to tell it. At one point, she says that “[photography] was the only language I spoke,” and the sheer breadth of her body of work makes you believe her. Poitras could’ve easily modeled this documentary after Goldin’s famous slideshows, a two-hour flip-through of her work that punches you in the gut over and over and over again without remorse. And it very nearly would be, if not for the film’s other throughline: her fight against the Sacklers, one of the richest families in the world, whose philanthropy covers up dark secrets.
The Sackler family — which is really three families under one umbrella — are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company responsible for the production of the highly addictive drug OxyContin. And while they have their names plastered across museums and galleries the world over for pouring money into exhibitions and funding, they have never publicly admitted to any wrongdoing in regard to Purdue, which played a fundamental role in the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Names that only exist to most on the stone walls of stuffy museums are given fangs representative of malicious ignorance in Poitras’s film, and Goldin’s photography is cut through with her legal battle to take the Sacklers to task, with the film following along as she founds an advocacy group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and attempts to publicly call out Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis, of which Goldin herself is a survivor.
There is, unsurprisingly, an art to the protests that Goldin and P.A.I.N. organize throughout the film, including tossing empty OxyContin bottles into water displays at the Met’s Sackler Wing, or throwing hundreds of prescription papers from the many levels of the Guggenheim’s spiral ramps, making rain out of the death of thousands of trees and opioid victims alike. Goldin is filled with so much heart — saying that she “always wanted the people in [her] pictures to be proud of being in the work” — that her rage is more than granted, and what could be a disconnect between her photography and her activism is bridged by that heart, by her sheer dedication to challenging the very people who value her work as an artist.
Her specific targeting of museums that not only took money from the Sacklers, but also keep her work in their permanent collections, is genius in a John Waters way, a way that pairs art with betrayal and disgust and all the vile things that the so-called art world of museums and galleries despises. Low art, camp culture, the blood and guts of giallo horror films that you can’t look away from. And rightly so, as Goldin sets out to prove that the money these museums have taken from the Sackler family is bathed in the blood of overdose victims, like Moses was carrying it in his pocket when he turned the River Nile to gore.
Goldin’s story is heart-wrenching from tip to toe, and at no point does Poitras ever let you forget that. Whether it’s reminding viewers that some of the photographer’s most famous work — including pieces from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — were created out of deep and profound hardship, or facing them with the reality of being stalked and harassed by alleged agents of the Sacklers, the director holds you by the throat for the entire two-hour run time, with the same exacting clarity of mind that Goldin exhibits in her photography.
I would say All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is not a film for the faint of heart, but it is. It’s a film for everyone, that they should sit through and digest and feel in the marrow of their bones. Let its content vibrate against your insides, whether it’s Goldin hosting “die-ins” at museums, or showing photographs of when she was violently abused by a former partner, assaulted so many times that she nearly went blind — nearly lost her literal eye for art, nearly stripped of her ability to show her world as it was, beauty and bloodshed and all.
There is no way to describe this film except for — pardon my French — goddamn incendiary. It is not shy. It does not back away. It does exactly what Goldin’s work always has: peels back a glass curtain into a world that has always existed, but that society has fervently tried to hide away for one reason or another. It strikes at the core of what makes us human, our hopes and fears and the relationships we invest ourselves in. It is community as art as activism in one giant loop, filtered through the gaze of a woman so unflinchingly tireless in her efforts that you cannot help but be on her side.
Art is a fight. Photography, specifically, is a fight. Against abstraction. Against obscurity. Against the loss of memories we fight so hard to protect, for ourselves and for others. Goldin is at the very forefront of this fight, and Poitras drags us, kicking and screaming, into that fight with her. I, for one, am happy to be there, feeling like the more Goldin says, the more I understand about the world, and the angrier I get — and anger’s always been the best motivation to me. It “gets shit done,” to quote American Gods.
And it truly does, as this documentary proves. The film, which begins with Goldin and P.A.I.N. hosting a “die-in” in the Met’s Sackler Wing, wraps up with the revelation that the family’s name has been removed from the space, all because of the activist’s efforts. Their anger, their frustration, their kicking and screaming and gnashing of teeth that didn’t stop until someone actually did something. Anger creates catharsis, though the work is far from over, and makes Goldin’s entire career, of constantly challenging the baseline and those who choose not to question it, feel like an utter success, even if only for a moment. The film releases its grip on your throat for a brief but ecstatic moment, and the fresh air audiences can finally breathe only serves to give the film’s message a kind of blinding clarity.
The Victoria & Albert Museum only just made the decision to remove the Sackler name from their courtyard, a place I spent many a day doodling in 2019, trying to escape the unrelenting experience of being a human being on this planet. The official announcement came only a month ago, in October of 2022, with the museum stating they have “no current plans to rename the spaces” after anyone else. They are just one of many, spurred on by Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s efforts, a tidal wave that began with one person, one idea, and continues to this day, beyond the limits of what Poitras was able to show us on film.
And while I’m disappointed it took the V&A this long, I’m grateful for the introduction to Nan, who lit a fire under my ass that I didn’t know I needed. In the same way, I’m grateful for this film, and to Poitras for unflinchingly showing us a perspective that bridges art and activism, community and creation, with all the precision and certainty of a brand-new Hasselblad lens.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is playing in select theaters now.