Oscar and Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’ exceptional All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—which was Queer Lion-nominated and won the Golden Lion for best film at Venice—weaves a compelling dual narrative that shifts between an unflinchingly personal portrait of photographer Nan Goldin’s life and career, and a focus on her recent campaign to hold those culpable for the opioid crisis accountable. The result is a poignant work of cumulative power, rich with connections between Goldin’s past and present, her art and her activism.
In January 2018, Artforum published a frank and consequential essay by Goldin. It detailed how she had “narrowly escaped” her own opioid addiction (at one point she was taking 18 pills a day), before going on to discover that the Sackler family—a name she’d previously been familiar with for their contributions to the world’s most high profile museums—was “responsible for the epidemic”. As Goldin pointed out, the Sacklers had “formulated, marketed, and distributed OxyContin” through its company Purdue Pharma, leading to a crisis that has now resulted in the deaths of over half a million Americans. The film chronicles how the organization that Goldin founded, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), successfully drew attention to this, shaming the world’s major art institutions into cutting ties with the Sacklers.
Before Poitras’ involvement, PAIN had already been documenting its meetings and demonstrations, and All the Beauty opens in the midst of a bold, ACT UP-style action unfolding in the Sackler wing of New York’s Met museum on March 10th, 2018. It’s a nerve-wracking and exhilarating few minutes of footage as we follow the event from an insider’s perspective, which culminates in a “die-in”, an element that was a vital component for Goldin of all six intricately orchestrated actions carried out by PAIN. There’s a performance art aspect to these actions which are designed not only to disrupt, but to engage those present with a clear message and to create arresting images, like the “blizzard” of prescriptions falling from the iconic spiral interior of the Guggenheim in February 2019 that appeared on the pages of The Guardian and The New York Times.
Rather than relying on contributors to talk about Goldin and her work (with the exception of her involvement in PAIN), All the Beauty instead allows the artist to narrate much of the film herself with audio taken from a series of self-reflective interviews conducted by Poitras. “It’s easy to make your life into stories, but harder to sustain a real memory” Goldin contemplates, as she seeks to distill significant episodes in her past. As we hear her speak, at times we also see her absorbing her own work; its impact and meaning reflected in her eyes. In fact, Goldin’s photographs are at the heart of the film, with considerable excerpts of several of her slideshows showcased, accompanied by a playlist overseen by Goldin, featuring artists such as The Velvet Underground that enhance the mood. Many of the images themselves have a cinematic and narrative quality to them and it’s a treat to see them on the big screen, lingering just long enough to take each of them in without these segments of the film ever feeling static.
There’s a real intimacy to Goldin’s words throughout, with her taking us back to her childhood, reflecting on the “claustrophobic household” that she grew up in, and recalling how her late sister Barbara had made her aware of “the banality and deadening grip of suburbia”. Both sisters were sent away from the family home. Firstly Barbara, who Goldin says was “made to fear her sexuality” and was branded as mentally ill by their parents, before going on to take her own life while institutionalized. A teenaged Goldin was then put into foster care. She describes, in haunting terms, being so distressed by her circumstances that she vomited all over her new room on the first night she arrived with her foster family, a typically vivid detail in Goldin’s narration, and one she says that she had forgotten about until speaking with Poitras.
The impact that the loss of her sister had on her was immeasurable. “My sister’s suicide had silenced me”, says Goldin, who remembers retreating into herself until she met her first love—while shoplifting—fellow photographer David Armstrong. While she helped him to come out as gay, he named her Nan. He was one of her first photographic subjects, and her beautiful images of him capture what she describes as the “androgyny” that she says she was attracted to in him.
Goldin observes that she’s often used photography as a substitute for—and believes is “generally better than”—sex. Being behind the camera was a way for her to walk through her fear, gave her a voice, and a reason to be present as she went about documenting the relationships that have mattered most in her life, her chosen family. Her narration and images take us through her days photographing queer, trans, and gender nonconforming folks at The Other Side in the 70s, Boston’s first nightclub to permit same-sex dancing. She admired the community she discovered there and dignified them as the subjects of her work at a time when they were shunned by mainstream society, and “survival was an art” as Goldin puts it.
In 1975, Goldin began going to the queer haven of Provincetown, where she recalls spending time living in a separatist lesbian community, standing out from the crowd by wearing lipstick and pearls to the beach. It was there where she met John Waters and his Dreamlanders, including Goldin’s close friend of many years Cookie Mueller. Along with Goldin’s stunning photographs of Mueller, there is some beautiful archive film footage of her in Provincetown with her girlfriend Sharon Niesp. There’s an immediacy to this strand of the film that both honours these creative outsiders, while bringing them back to life through Goldin’s photography and her words.
We’re then immersed into a New York City of communal living on the Bowery, when artists could survive on a fistful of cash. Goldin talks about the jobs that she took on to buy film, like working as a dancer in a strip club in New Jersey (where state law meant that she didn’t have to go topless, unlike the bars in New York where the women did). Later she became a sex worker at a brothel in the city, something that she says “isn’t negative in itself” but observes that it “is one of the hardest jobs you could have”. It’s an aspect of her life that she hasn’t talked about publicly before, but in doing so she hopes it will help to destigmatize sex work. As depicted in the HBO series The Deuce (which the photographer had a cameo in), the midtown Manhattan women-run bar, Tin Pan Alley, offered jobs to women looking to get out of sex work and Goldin began bartending there. It was a hangout for artists that exhibited their work, including Goldin’s.
Goldin observed society’s tendency to cast aside and neglect those it deems unworthy and her urge to destigmatize is something that runs through her life, work, and activism; including sex, addiction, mental health, AIDS, queer and trans folks, and domestic abuse. A reaction to the “what would the neighbours think?” suburban mindset that she’d grown up around, and seen the damage it had caused. When Goldin’s friend was upset to discover that images of her having sex had been included in one of her slideshows, the photographer decided that she would turn the camera on herself, resulting in self-portraits that formed part of her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency series. After being badly beaten by her boyfriend Brian in Berlin, she was hospitalized with broken bones in her eyes, which she also documented in Sexual Dependency.
As well as some fascinating insights into her creative process (something many documentaries about artist’s lack), Goldin also reflects on the male-dominated art world’s resistance to her entry into it. She recalls being told in the mid-80s that “there’s no such thing as a good female artist”. Not only was she a woman, but she was using her own life and her friends as her muse and subject of her work, and shooting in colour, all of which went against what was deemed art in photography at that time.
In June 1980, Goldin had been part of the now legendary collaborative Times Square Show, when downtown artists went uptown for a full month; described by The Village Voice as “the first major exhibition of radical art in the 80s”. Poitras contextualizes how radical much of Goldin’s work was at the time, and remains. As that decade was coming to a close, and the city’s creative community was being devastated by the HIV/AIDS crisis, Goldin curated the first major art show in the US to deal with AIDS—Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing—featuring works by artists directly affected, including her friends such as David Armstrong and David Wojnarowicz. The latter wrote the show’s controversial catalogue introduction, which caused political uproar on the right and resulted in the pulling of public funds by the NEA as that era’s culture wars raged on. Goldin’s perspective on the HIV/AIDS crisis and losing countless friends—with Cookie Mueller’s funeral taking place just before the opening of Witnesses—doesn’t feel like distanced history, but a visceral, still deeply painful living memory.
All the Beauty makes clear that Goldin’s activism isn’t new, it’s always been there in her work, and she was there in the trenches with ACT UP in the 80s and 90s. A potent link emerges not just between her activism then and now, but also the avoidable deaths resulting from the opioid and AIDS crises; the greed and governmental neglect. It’s a reminder that a determined group of individuals can create meaningful change, as PAIN’s work continues, broadening its focus to combat the stigma surrounding drug use and to highlight harm reduction models of treatment. Like the actions themselves, All the Beauty is an urgent film that demands our attention, and richly rewards its audience at every turn. Both strands enthrall; taken together they build into something breathtaking, moving, and profound. Like Goldin’s own work, it might be raw and uncomfortable at times, but there’s always beauty in it.
By James Kleinmann
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is currently playing in select theaters and expands to additional US cities throughout December 2022 from Neon.