Photographer Nan Goldin, world-renowned for her searingly intimate studies of sex and explorations of LGBTQ+ subcultures, declares herself a narrow survivor of America’s Opioid Epidemic. She was prescribed OxyContin after surgery on an injured hand in 2014 and became addicted for three years. After running out of money, overdosed on the synthetic opiate Fentanyl, and almost died.
It is for this reason that Laura Poitras’ documentary about Goldin, the Venice winner All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is able to intertwine art and activism so powerfully. The film’s backbone is Goldin’s fight against the Sackler familya dynasty that has donated millions to arts and academic institutions around the world, but whose business Purdue Pharma continued to market and sell OxyContin as recently as 2019 and has faced 3,000 lawsuits over the devastation the epidemic has wreaked on American families.
Goldin, in the film’s opening scene, stages a “die-in” protest in the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing — one of dozens of institutions that would come under pressure to reject the family’s donations and remove their name from galleries. (Many, including Tate, Guggenheim, V&A and The British Museum has now done that.) In 2018, this was the first action by Goldin’s newly formed advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now—PAIN—which involved hurling hundreds of pill bottles, labeled with Sackler, into the reflecting pool in the wing’s main room.
Amidst this saga, Poitras moves back and forth between some of Goldin’s signal career achievements, most famously including her 1985 slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—a partially autobiographical project featuring photographs of many of Goldin’s close friends in New York’s Bowery district York. late 1970s and early 1980s.
On the cover of the book version, Nan appears lying in bed, with her then-boyfriend Brian sat smoking naked; the same Brian beat her so badly, on a trip to Berlin in 1984, that her eye almost came loose from its socket. The choice to include a photograph of her ravaged face after this attack, in her own opinion, prevented her from going back to him.