All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Review: Nan Goldin’s Remarkable Life

Venice: Laura Poitras presents a devastating work of shocking intelligence and even greater emotional power.


That title. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” made the Venice Film Festival competition shiver before it aired, sounding more like a line from a Yeats poem than the director’s latest documentary, CITIZENFOUR. The big news: the film lives up to that. Already a robust director, Laura Poitras has evolved with a towering and devastating work of shocking intelligence and even greater emotional power.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is about the life and art of Nan Goldin and how it led her to found PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy group reaching out to the Sackler family to make and sell OxyContin expel, a deeply addictive drug, has exacerbated the opioid crisis. It’s about the bonds of community, the dangers of repression and that art and politics are the same.

The biggest compliment is that this film is worthy of Goldin, a woman whose words are as strong as her art and whose art reveals our most intimate and vulnerable selves. To this day, Goldin is known for her groundbreaking photo collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which includes cheerful, candid images of the queer family she had on the Bowery in ’80s New York, self-portraits from having sex with her boyfriend, and then her face with two black eyes after he later did everything he could to kill her.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” begins with shaky video footage of PAIN’s first direct action at The Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. They sing “Sacklers lie, people die” and then lie on the floor feigning death. Goldin later reveals that she was inspired by ACT UP’s protest methods in the ’80s. It won’t be the first parallel she or Poitras draws between the AIDS and opioid crises and the politics of leaving certain people in America to die.

Poitras then takes us back to the suburban home where Nan grew up. Of her beloved older sister, Barbara, Goldin says, “She alerted me to the banal and deadly grasp of the suburbs,” and she speaks with a penetrating affect that never falters, not for a single answer, giving to the tale of her sprawling life the right driving gait of a panther. Poitras, for her part, understands the connections between events decades apart to such an extent that every detail of a dysfunctional 50’s upbringing later pays off in umpteen different ways, giving this film the monumental task of making episodes out of life in one side of a perfectly intact form.

We are informed at this early stage that Barbara died by suicide. Nan then got the fuck away, warned by doctors that the same fate would befall her if she stayed at home. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is dedicated to Barbara. The storytelling surrounding Nan’s biography, her queer family, art and what it looks like to take on the billionaire Sackler family is so compelling that it’s only at the end that it all turns back to Barbara after the testimonies of lost family members to opioid overdoses that you realize that grief has been the emotional bedrock all along.

Deftly moving from the past to the present, Poitras interviews investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, whose exposure of the Sackler family in the 2017 New Yorker article “The Family Who Built An Empire of Pain” led to his house being taken over by a shady figure staked out in an off-road vehicle. Poitras is at home with investigative storytelling, digging up old post-1996 ads when OxyContin was launched in the States by Purdue Pharma, part of the Sackler Company. To combat public fears, they released soothing commercials, and a man in a suit turns directly to the camera while spreading lies about OxyContin not being addictive.

Back in time, to the most exuberant part of Nan’s story: discovering her queer tribe, first in Provincetown, where she befriended John Waters’ actress Cookie Mueller, and then at The Bowery in New York. A galiomorphy of photos and slides shows birds of paradise, feathered drag queens, young, beautiful, wild things in the bathtub, at shows, dancing, smoking, eating, fucking. The life force that flows through these still images is electric, evoking a time of freedom and opportunity in the 1970s and 80s, before AIDS, when throngs of people could cluster in a windowless loft and live out their artistic and lifestyle impulses cheap.

As AIDS begins to take names, the film stays true and localizes Goldin’s attempts to express what happened through her art in collaboration with the late, great David Wojnarowicz. His lyrics to The Killing Machine Called America are designed to evoke what happened then and what is happening now in new ways

We’re given a whistle-stop tour of the subculture, with clips from Vivienne Dick and Bette Gordon films and anecdotes from TinPan, a bar where only women worked and Nan was “the dominatrix”. Each vignette has its own colorful detail or punchline. There is no dry box ticking information, just liveliness. It turns out that Goldin the orator breaks the fugue of conformity with the same punch as Goldin the photographer, and Poitras is there to give her the sharp editing she deserves.

In connection with the breakdown of her relationship with the man who beat her, Goldin offers a key: she “likes to fight.” Fighting is a theme of The Beauty and the Bloodshed—whether it’s against a man doing physical harm, a family where no one tells the truth, or a pharmaceutical company looking to clear its name through artistic donations.

As the film progresses, the boundary between art and politics becomes blurred. PAIN’s protests belong in museums for the sake of the art alone, nonetheless they come with the very specific aim of getting museums to stop accepting sacks and write down their names. Poitras embeds himself in the group as they discuss an old memo in which the Sacklers say they want “a blizzard” of Oxy recipes released across America. For their next protest, they drop a blizzard of recipes from the top floor of the Guggenheim into its auditorium. It looks amazing.

The event that prompted Goldin to form PAIN was her own overdose. She almost died, but came back and stays clean with the help of a drug called buprenorphine, which she claims is harder for doctors to prescribe than OxyContin. I won’t spoil the confrontation that “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” suddenly offers, other than to say that Nan happened to be holding her friend’s hand, a tiny gesture that underscores how the community was the ballast for letting this extraordinary one woman survive.

The documentary is so packed with information, but in the last 15 minutes only the core principles flow and reveal a powerful coherence. The origin of the phrase “All The Beauty and the Bloodshed” is inserted to provide a fitting and angry elegy for those on the other side. This is an overwhelming film.

Rating: A+

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Neon will release it at a later date.

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Lindsay Lowe

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