In the opening scene of the Nan Goldin documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the legendary fine-art photographer is leading a flash-mob protest at a modern art museum, demonstrating against their acceptance of donation money from The Sackler Family. She lays down on the museum floor, pretending to be a corpse alongside dozens of collaborators, and the camera catches glimpse of a “SILENCE = DEATH” tote bag commemorating ACT UP protests of decades past. Later in the film, similar archival footage from the ACT UP era shows Goldin decrying Reaganite Evangelical indifference to the AIDS epidemic, platforming fellow activist artists like David Wojnarowicz to combat institutional cruelty in an art gallery setting. Both protests are personal to Goldin, who has recently become addicted to the Sacklers’ profit-over-people product Oxycontin and has historically lost countless loved ones to the Reagan administration’s deliberate mishandling of AIDS. Both protests earn their screentime thematically, but only one is compelling to look at, having earned a fascinating vintage texture through the technological passage of time. The modern smartphone footage at an overlit Metropolitan Museum exhibit just can’t compete, since it’s near-indistinguishable from disposable one-glance content on a social media feed.
That textural difference between past & present footage weighs heavily on the film throughout. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is half a career-spanning slideshow from Nan Goldin’s legacy as a fine art photography rock star and half a document of her current mission to deflate The Sackler Family’s tires, at least in the art world. The career-retrospective half can’t help but be more compelling than the current political activism half, since her archives are dense with the most stunning, intimate images of Authentic City Living ever captured. Her personal history in those images and her recent struggles with addiction more than earn her the platform to be heard about whatever she wants to say here, though, especially since the evil pharmaceutical empire she’s most pissed at has trespassed on her home turf. The protest group Goldin helps organize, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, specifically aims to have the Sackler name and donations removed from fine art museums, attacking the family’s cultural prestige since it is improbable to dismantle their personal wealth. P.A.I.N.’s protests in the film only target museums that feature Goldin’s work in their permanent collection, leveraging her cultural clout in the art world to do as much practical damage to the Sackler name as they can. The only problem is that documentation of these efforts only amounts to Good Politics, not Good Art, which is an unignorable fault in a film that proves it’s possible to achieve both.
Documentarian Laura Poitras was likely excited to make a movie about Nan Goldin precisely because of those modern-day P.A.I.N. protests, since amplifying Goldin’s personal war on the Sacklers fits in so snugly with her past modern-politics documentaries about WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and the NSA. I’m grateful she took interest, no matter what her reason, since it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being in the audience for one of Goldin’s classic Ballad of Sexual Dependency slide shows. Setting up a rack of six slide projectors like a guitarist’s Marshall stack, Goldin’s slideshows register as more of a D.I.Y. punk act than a gallery exhibit. Here, she recalls her journey from developing her early drag bar photos at the local pharmacy to earning enough art-world clout that she can convince museums to turn down 7-figure donations from prestige-hungry, life-destroying benefactors. I’m used to seeing Goldin’s photos in isolation, collected as single images among her No-Wave NYC contemporaries’ similarly unpretentious, self-documentary imagery. It’s a treat to be immersed in her work at length here, learning the names & personalities of the recurring “characters” in her photos and getting a better sense of her iconoclastic presence in the larger world of fine art. So, of course, the modern protest footage that presumably drew Poitras to the project often frustrates in its distraction from what drew me to watch it. Goldin’s artwork is hardly a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, though; it’s just more potent, tastier medicine.
Laura Poitras is not using Nan Goldin’s life story as an excuse to score political hits against Purdue Pharma & The Sackler family. If anything, this documentary feels like a fluid collaboration between the two artists, and Poitras is only there to give Goldin as much space as she wants to rant about how the Sacklers have turned fine art galleries into “temples of greed.” If Goldin wanted to tell the story of her life’s work separately from the story of her recent protests, I’m sure she could’ve found an obliging collaborator to film her self-narrated slideshows. She even could have made that movie on her own, since her control over the rhythm, scoring, and storytelling of her slideshows is in itself a kind of improvised filmmaking, a skill she’s been honing for decades. It’s reasonable to assume that the decision to give her modern crusade against the Sacklers equal weight as her bottomless catalog of breathtaking city-life portraits was partly—if not entirely—Goldin’s own. It’s a politically respectable choice, of course, but it’s also an artistically limiting one.