As a filmmaker, Laura Poitras has burnished her bona fides as an investigative journalist, notably in Citizenfour, which captured whistleblower history in the making. There are elements of you-are-there immediacy and insider access in her exquisite new film, but All the Beauty and the Bloodshed takes her work to new aesthetic heights and wrenching emotional depths. A collaboration with photographer Nan Goldin, the film chronicles Goldin’s activist mission to hold the Sacklers responsible for the opioid addiction crisis perpetrated by their company Purdue Pharma. But it’s much more than that.
It’s a portrait of the artist, through her images and her words, and an intimate look at grassroots political action. It’s a documentary about families — two in particular that couldn’t be more different and yet share a dark proclivity for dodging the truth: Goldin’s birth family, bent on keeping up appearances, and the Sacklers, bent on maintaining profit margins. In both cases, on very different levels, reputation is all, and the resulting destructiveness is grave. But then there’s the family of friends, the outré misfits and downtown deviants who Goldin has celebrated in her work for more than 50 years, people who turned their backs on convention and created a subculture.
The Bottom Line
A sublime and gritty knockout.
Poitras, as recorder and questioner — she conducted audio interviews with Goldin over a nearly two-year period — appears briefly and then recedes. There are a few talking heads, but the film is propelled by Goldin’s photographs and slideshows, her voiceover describing pivotal moments in her life. The events she describes are sometimes harrowing, sometimes quietly ecstatic with discovery, and always shaped by a searching self-awareness.
Her words are precise — with stripped-down, poetic directness, they get to the crux of the matter, whether she’s describing her experience with OxyContin addiction, her profoundly dysfunctional upbringing, or her life on the fringes among glam dreamers who invented themselves in Boston’s gay clubs, in low-rent Manhattan during the ’70s, when bohemia was affordable, and in Provincetown. In addition to Goldin’s sultry, stark and provocative work, Poitras excerpts the films of Bette Gordon and Vivienne Dick to evoke the scene. Goldin appears in the latter’s Liberty’s Booty (1980), filmed at the brothel where she did sex work.
Goldin, who once curated an AIDS-themed show that drew the rage of politicians and the cultural establishment because of the blisteringly honest catalog essay by her friend David Wojnarowicz, drew upon the protest demonstrations of ACT-UP as a model for P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the group she formed in 2017. Its goals: to support people struggling with addiction and to hold the Sacklers to the fire for Purdue’s ultra-aggressive and dishonest promotion of monstrously addictive opioids, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
She used her clout to shake the foundations of the big-money art industry with a 2018 article in Artforum that called out the Sacklers for their role in a health disaster. At some of the world’s most revered museums, where the Sackler name has long been prominently displayed on building wings, Goldin and her fellow activists have chanted “Temple of greed!” They’ve staged die-ins. They’ve thrown prescription bottles into a reflecting pool, and created a “blizzard” of prescription pages (borrowing language from an internal Sackler document), raining down into the Guggenheim’s rotunda — acts of political impact, and many of them ultimately successful. But they’re also acts of aesthetic impact, captured with a potent sense of their elegant fury.
The doc points out that before OxyContin, Purdue was pushing Valium hard, and Poitras includes a few of those nightmare ads that once flourished, targeting women and their anxieties, the goal not so much to make them feel better as to make them less of an annoyance to their husbands and families. Taking on powerful art-world philanthropists and their ill-gotten riches, Goldin has made it a point to be a problem.
As to the source of her courageous badassery, the film traces a life-shaping vein. The heart of the film — and, arguably, of Goldin’s work — is her beloved older sister, Barbara, a rebellious nonconformist who was too full of life for their parents to handle. Instead they and some of the doctors they consulted silenced their firstborn with the label of mental illness. Her story is an unbearable one — her pain, her terrible death, her mother’s mode of denial. The suburban neighbors must not know about their domestic turmoil and its awful depths. The art world must not think about the source of all that cash aimed its way by museum benefactors. In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the 1985 slideshow and 1986 book that’s generally regarded as Goldin’s masterpiece, she included self-portraits that showed her scarred and bruised from a brutal battering by her ex-boyfriend. In her self-examination, in her embrace of people’s tough-to-look-at struggles, her ethos has been a rejection of shame.
Filtering her outrage into focused action, she’s succeeded in pressuring a number of museums to cut their Sackler ties. Poitras, in her accustomed in-the-room reportage role, captures a remarkable virtual confrontation, part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy hearing, in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin confront members of the Sackler family — their testimony unfolding across laptop screens, but charged with emotion nonetheless. Sacklers might avert their gaze for an instant, but they can’t look away.
“You grow up,” Goldin says at one point in the documentary, “being told, ‘That didn’t happen.’ ” When, after the shivers and shimmers of the score by Soundwalk Collective, Lucinda Williams’ voice comes over the closing credits, a voice infused with hard knocks and openheartedness, it’s the perfect cap to the film, emphasizing that this did happen, and there’s no point in looking away. The story of Goldin’s activism would make a worthy film. The story of her birth and blossoming as an artist would too. The story of her sister pulls all this into another dimension, and the way Poitras and Goldin have brought the threads together, into the light, is a distillation likely to shake you to the core. It’s art.