All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

In this piercingly empathetic documentary, 'Citizenfour' Oscar-winner Laura Poitras turns her attention to photographer Nan Goldin and her fight against the family behind OxyContin.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 09, 2023


With photographer Nan Goldin at its centre, the latest documentary by Citizenfour Oscar-winner Laura Poitras is a film about many things, to deeply stunning and moving effect. In this movie's compilation of Goldin's acclaimed snaps, archival footage, current interviews, and past and present activism, a world of stories flicker — all linked to Goldin, but all also linking universally. The artist's bold work, especially chronicling LGBTQIA+ subcultures and the 80s HIV/AIDS crisis, frequently and naturally gets the spotlight. Her complicated family history, which spans heartbreaking loss, haunts the doco as it haunts its subject. The rollercoaster ride that Goldin's life has taken, including in forging her career, supporting her photos, understanding who she is and navigating an array of personal relationships, cascades through, too. And, so do her efforts to counter the opioid epidemic by bringing one of the forces behind it to public justice.

Revealing state secrets doesn't sit at the core of the tale here, unlike Citizenfour and Poitras' 2016 film Risk — one about Edward Snowden, the other Julian Assange — but everything leads to the documentary's titular six words: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. They gain meaning in a report spied late about the mental health of Goldin's older sister Barbara, who committed suicide at the age of 18 when Goldin was 11, and who Goldin contends was just an "angry and sexual" young woman in the 60s with repressed parents. A psychiatrist uses the eponymous phrase to describe what Barbara sees and, tellingly, it could be used to do the same with anyone. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is, in part, a rebuke of the idea that a teenager with desires and emotions is a problem, and also a statement that that's who we all are, just to varying levels of societal acceptance. The film is also a testament that, for better and for worse, all the beauty and the bloodshed we all witness and endure is what shapes us.

Life is all the beauty and the bloodshed, inescapably — and in the film's most recent footage, Goldin fights against the latter. In an essay penned in 2017, published in 2018 in Artforum and given voice now, she reveals her addiction. "I survived the opioid crisis. I narrowly escaped," she says of her time taking OxyContin, which was originally prescribed to her as it is for many: for surgery. "Though I took it as directed, I got addicted overnight. It was the cleanest drug I'd ever met," Goldin continues. The damage that this prescription substance has caused is well-documented, in docos and dramas such as The Crime of the Century and Dopesick alike. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed isn't just another popped from the packet, but a feature that inserts Goldin's battle against the wealthy Sackler family, founders and owners of OxyContin-making pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, into a bigger slideshow.

This is a personal fray, again for many reasons; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed's nesting layers exceed any set of matryoshka dolls. The conflict between autonomy and dependence has long been one of Goldin's sources of fascination — given how her sister was treated, how could it not? — and her seminal work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency filters through the film, as well as acts as inspiration. Goldin crusades against the reliance that so-called "miracle drug" OxyContin has sparked, and the rising death toll the opioid epidemic keeps notching up. Co-founding advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), she literally rallies against the Sacklers, whose fortune is enormous off the back of the OxyContin's carnage. She directs particular focus to the Sacklers' artwashing, thanks to their hefty donations to galleries and museums, which is where PAIN stages its protests.

Many of the cultural institutions accepting the Sacklers' money — many of them bearing the family's name on their buildings, in fact, because that's how much funds such spaces have received— are also intertwined with Goldin's career. An artist's work has to display somewhere, and hers has garnered berths in prestigious spots. PAIN targets them all and more, at considerable risk to Goldin's professional standing, and in a case of an artist firmly putting her principles first. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed begins with action at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with a "die-in" in its largest gallery space, which is named for the Sacklers. It's a powerful sight, not just filled with prone protestors on the ground but with orange prescription pill bottles scattered around, and bobbing in the room's moat. More such scenes appear throughout the movie, travelling to the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre — their famous spiral ramp and pyramid, respectively, taken over to make a statement.

Poitras could've simply filled a documentary with Goldin's photography or her efforts with PAIN; either way, a gripping film would've eventuated. If she'd just gone with the second option, it could've been another like fellow 2023 Oscar-nominee Navalny that ripples with the tension of a spy thriller, as such scenes do within All the Beauty and the Bloodshed anyway — complete with actual espionage. PAIN's protests are potent to visually behold, Goldin ensuring that they stand out aesthetically and, as the doco sees, photograph well. The passion and piercing emotion of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed wouldn't be what it is without everything around its OxyContin-combating quest, however, because no one action, decision, movement or person is just one thing. This chronicle of the political must also be personal, detailing how Goldin's childhood brought her to life on the fringes, then to photographing it to preserve it, and then to fighting for it. It has to examine how her work is a response to society's marginalisation of women and the queer community, and also crucially a portrait of her own ups and downs, too, showing where her empathy and activism bloomed and why.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed isn't dutifully connecting dots, though, but observing all that makes someone who they are — and makes their deeds, such as Goldin's crusade against the Sacklers, what they are at the same time. It flits backwards and forwards in an act of structural mastery, recreating the feeling of slipping and sliding through memories. Along the way, it gives its marvellous cavalcade of its subject's imagery room to resonate, as it does with her commentary on it, her recollections of her fallen friends like Pink Flamingos star Cookie Mueller and artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, and her constant unpacking of her childhood. It lets court-ordered victim statements to the Sacklers in Purdue's bankruptcy deal echo and linger. Winning the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival as well, this is a remarkable doco about an individual, and the others who've cast their shadows upon her, as well as a stirring account of the clash between individuals and power — Poitras' frequent topic of interest, after all.


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