Art is political. It always has been and always will be. Those who deny this, or spout bad-faith opposition to such an idea, are common features in our never-ending cultural discourse. Art is also one of our most powerful tools of activism. Few people prove that point more thoroughly than Nan Goldin, the legendary photographer whose candid, joyous, and raw images of queer life and frank sexuality in ’80s New York made her an icon. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, she took on right-wing censors to showcase work that told the stories of sufferers with no filter. Later in life, following experiences with oxycontin addiction, she decided to take on one of the most infamous families in American history: the Sacklers.
Director Laura Poitras won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, an uncommon feat for a documentary. It leaps between exploring Goldin’s life and her recent activism with P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy group targeting the Sackler Family for manufacturing and distributing OxyContin. The Sacklers made billions of dollars from the drug, lying about its addictive qualities and marketing it as the wonder painkiller for all ailments. The opioid crisis can almost entirely be laid at their feet, yet they’ve faced no legal repercussions for the tens of millions of lives gone because of their machinations. The Sacklers’ names are on plaques and above the doors of many of the world’s most iconic artistic and educational institutions. Goldin has exhibited her work in museums and galleries where the Sacklers donated millions to help whitewash their public images. As she says so herself in the film, she violently hates these people and wants them to pay. This is a small but crucial way they can be held accountable.
Poitras follows Goldin and P.A.I.N. as they host protests and die-ins at places like the Guggenheim, forcing revered establishments to confront the dirty money they’ve accepted for decades. For her, this is a crucial part of her work as an artist and a continuation of what she did in the ’80s. She names ACT UP as an inspiration, drawing parallels between the AIDS and the opioid crises, two epidemics of death and decay made worse through political ignorance and stigmatizing of marginalized communities.
Using Goldin’s own work, including her acclaimed collection ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, Poitras allows the artist to speak for herself about her life, photos, and how the two intertwined. It’s a testament to Poitras’ deft hand and ability to condense so much history that this film feels truly worthy of a giant like Goldin. She understands that there’s nobody better to tell Goldin’s story than the woman herself, someone whose art is defined by her total willingness to bare all in her life from birth onward. Her photographs always had the air of cinema about them, so imbued with story and character and uninterested in neatness that the art world initially rejected her on sight. After the suicide of her sister, Goldin had a troubled adolescence before finding a new family with a ragtag group of queer artists, troublemakers, and outsider icons, from John Waters to David Wojnarowicz.
Goldin used her art to try and vocalize the troubles of the times, whether it was the AIDS epidemic killing her friends or experiencing domestic violence at the hands of a partner. None of this is presented to us as dry biographical details. It’s vividly portrayed through her own images, with Goldin acting as a witty, perceptive, and honest narrator. Poitras curates it all with her gaze towards clarity, all while keeping herself out of the narrative.
The protests against the Sacklers make for some of the most striking moments in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Trust an artist to know how to stage a visually gripping campaign. They fling pill bottles into the fountain of the Met’s Sackler wing. They create a storm of fake prescriptions at the Guggenheim, inspired by a leaked memo where the Sacklers say they want a ‘blizzard’ of OxyContin to be released across the country. They make their own fake dollar bills and smear them with red paint, clutching them in their hands as they lie on the ground and pretend to be dead. It’s all almost as stunning as Goldin’s photographs, and contrasted with David Wojnarowicz’s prescient work. This is not the first time we’ve seen comparisons between AIDS and the opioid crisis but Poitras and company do bring a full array of context to drive that message home to the viewer.
Goldin is now outside commentator on this issue. Her ferocity comes from a horrifically lived experience, including an overdose that almost killed her. The work of P.A.I.N. continues with an eye towards harm reduction. As long as addicts are treated as subhuman, as people who deserve their cruel fates, nothing will change. Goldin reveals the reality of recovery, noting that she’s able to stay clean with the help of a drug called buprenorphine that is harder to get a prescription for than Oxy.
The greatest gift of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is in how it believes in the necessity of art as a tool for survival. Goldin’s activism against not only the Sacklers but the art market that claims to revere her is a natural extension of her lifelong mission to uplift and protect her own community. Poitras gives us all of this and more, creating not only a stunning portrait of an artist but a call to arms to create, to fight, and to combine the two in as many ways as one can think of. It’ll take one hell of a masterpiece to top this as the best documentary of 2022 so far.
Also, f**k the Sacklers.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released nationwide by Neon later this year.