All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, the new biographical documentary on photographer and activist Nan Goldin, opens with Goldin leading a protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing , and it’s Temple of Dendur exhibition, to protest and raise awareness of the family for whom the museums wing is named after is the same Sacklers who own Purdue Pharma, one of the lead manufacturers of oxycontin, the main drug that has been driving the ongoing opioid crisis In the United States over the last several years. It is not the first oprotest that Goldin has led against the family and company. And her activism against the Sacklers is not purely driven by altruism, but by hard life experiences. A hand injury that required surgery and painkillers prescribed afterwards lead to her own three-year opioid addiction. It is also very personal – “I hate the Sacklers,” she coldly states at one point, blaming them for the miseries many thousands of people suffered through for their profit. “You can only be furious about it.” – and it is that duality that director Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) manages to capture so brilliantly in this portrait.
“It’s easy to make your life into a story but its harder to sustain memory,” Goldin states at the beginning of the movie, as if a dare to Poitras. “The real experience has a smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings.”
But Poitras takes that dare and gives us an intimate portrait of the artist, exploring the roots of her activism and her art. It takes us to a childhood with emotionally distant parents, the only love coming from her older sister. But that would be fleeting as her parents would send that sister, Barbara, to variuos institutions once they found out she was gay. Finally, at the age of eighteen, Barbara committed suicide. At fourteen, Goldin went through a series of foster homes after a psychiatrist warned she could attempt to take her own life as well if she stayed under her parents’ roof.
Goldin eventually found a home and family of sorts amongst the outsider artist and LGBTQ communities of first Boston and then New York City. She describes those years in the mid-to-late 1970s as a time of great promise, even when she has to scrabble hard to make a living. They didn’t know that the AIDS epidemic was right around the corner. There is a tendency to mythologize New York city of the 1970s and ’80s because of the movements in both music and art that were energizing creatives there. But Poitras manages to avoid romanticizing those decades as we follow Goldin’s often stark and gritty life there.
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed does a great job of contextualizing Goldin’s work both in terms of her artistic endevours and in her activism. Poitras crosscutting between telling Nan’s life story and her staging protests against the Sacklers creates a resonance between the two ears. We see that the people who died were considered outsiders, perhaps victims of their own moral failures, and therefore beneath society’s need to notice. But Goldin’s photographs capture vividly may of those who perished, leaving a record of lives gone too soon. And when Goldin is protesting against the family that is responsible for the pain and tragedy of addiction she is doing so with the memory of watching many of her own friends and fellow artists dying of a disease in the early 1980s that the federal government turned a sanctimonious blind eye to what was happening.