Stirring Doc Intertwines the DNA of Nan Goldin’s Art and Activism

This review was first published on Sept. 11, 2022, after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Fesitval.

Less a biography than an act of communion, Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” sets for itself a difficult task: What more can you reveal about the most self-revealing of artists? What can a documentary portrait about Nan Goldin bring out that Goldin — a photographer who arguably revolutionized the artform with her candor — hasn’t already explored? To see the “Citizenfour” director wrestle and conquer those thorny questions is one of the many thrills of Poitras’ masterful, Venice Golden Lion–winning film.

As it surveys an individual narrative across a half-century of political, artistic and cultural heartache, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is, in so many ways, the Great American Novel in documentary form. Split into seven chapters, the film could just as easily be split into as many genres: Here is an elegy for a lost generation and a call to action for the here-and-now; an urgent exposé about the opioid crisis and an intimate family drama about the weight of abuse; a travelogue across art and American history (are they so different?) and a war film, set on the battlefield of the world’s most famous museums.

But for all those moving parts, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” remains, at heart, a simple and intimate profile of a woman who sees art and activism as one and the same.

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Toggling timelines and documentary formats, Poitras interweaves two different threads across its seven chapters. On one side the filmmaker uses direct cinema to track direct action, embedding with Goldin and the activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) over a three-year stretch; on the other side, Poitras opens an archival treasure chest to retrace Goldin’s life and artistic evolution from the 1960s onward. Neither competing with nor complementing one another, the strands jointly form the double helix of Goldin’s artistic DNA.

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Today we find Goldin an artist at the top of the heap. She’s world-renowned several times over, secure in her legacy and well displayed in all the most prestigious galleries — and as the film then sets the clock back, it retraces her path from suburban malaise to Boston’s 1970s drag scene to the Bowery of the underground 80s to a period of artistic ferment in Berlin and all the way to the morning, in March 2018, when Goldin strides into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to leverage her accrued cachet in a war on the Sackler family.

Maybe you’ve seen the name. The pharmaceutical billionaires behind the privately held Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers spent three decades pushing OxyContin, apparently fully aware of the opioid’s lethally addictive properties; they are also, not incidentally, some of the art world’s most profligate donors. Herself a recovering addict and high-profile photographer, Goldin sees those elements as intrinsically linked — what she calls an act of “blood-money laundering” using the corridors of high culture.

Though investigative reporting from New Yorker writer (and film interviewee) Patrick Radden Keefe has shown the family’s direct culpability in the opioid crisis, the Sacklers have remained shielded by a legal system designed to side with capital. But Goldin has her own kind of capital, and with that, the kind of freedom to organize flash-mob protests at high-culture cathedrals that have Sackler Wings. Demanding that such institutions sever ties with the tainted family, Goldin recognizes that even if the Met, Guggenheim and Louvre throw out the protesters, they’ll never get rid of her photos.    

How could they? From her early days, bathing Boston drag queens in loving glows uncommon to the era, to her mid-80s breakout “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Goldin’s photos overflow with life in all of life’s extremes. The photographer deploys a circular intimacy, revealing both herself and the friends who have revealed themselves to her, the work a touchstone of an individual anchored in a community. Rather than overthinking the matter, Poitras often cedes the stage to her subject, allowing long stretches to play as signature Goldin slideshows narrated by the photographer herself.

And like a Goldin slideshow, the focus is never on only one person. If Goldin has an original voice, she’s by no means sui generis. Quite the contrary: The photographer is both a product of and conduit for her wider surroundings, so to focus on Goldin means widening the aperture to all those in her orbit.

Poitras does just that, lending her film a choral quality as she extends her interest to Goldin friends and associates like photographer David Armstrong, painter David Wojnarowicz and actress Cookie Mueller. The fact that all are seen through Goldin’s intimate, catch-of-life photos gives such sequences an immediate quality; the fact that all have since passed on makes the film feel like a ghost story.

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Poitras leans into that aspect. Among its many other qualities, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a sterling act of restoration, an archival valentine that scans and showcases photos and films (including Vivienne Dick’s “Liberty’s Booty” and Betty Gordon’s “Variety”) in vibrant ways. Goldin captured life before her lens in the urgent present, and when we see those photos cleaned up and projected onto a massive screen, we are transported back to that moment. The absence of any contemporary interviews with (nearly all of) those subjects imparts a more-than-bittersweet tinge to the life we see flickering on screen.

Those silences eventually become deafening. And if at first Poitras’ interplay between yesterday and today shows an artist honing her voice and an artist deploying it, once the film moves into the late ’80s, and the peak of the AIDS crisis, the cross-cutting technique takes on a different resonance.

Devoting a whole chapter to the Goldin-organized exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” the film makes pointed comparisons between the AIDS and opioids epidemics, contextualizing Goldin’s activism in both as part of a larger continuum. In both cases, framed side-by-side within Poitras’ construction, we find Goldin swimming upstream against stronger political and social currents, swapping government contempt in one for bureaucratic fecklessness in another. And in both cases, Goldin relies on community and creativity to channel moral resistance into art.

Then there’s the family question. The film’s evocative title stems from a medical report written about Goldin’s older sister, Barbara. A casualty of early-’60s conformity in general and of her own taciturn clan more specifically, the older Goldin spent years in and out of psychiatric facilities, even if the only thing “wrong” with her was that she was born into the wrong time and place. With the candor typical of her photo work, Nan Goldin reveals the abuse her own mother suffered, tying it to generationally transferred trauma that ultimately pushed her older sister to take her own life.

This family tragedy bookends the film, acting as both an inciting incident that pushes the central figure out of the home, into the wider world, and towards the artist who will use her clout as a cudgel. Later it plays as a kind of coda, a capstone that subtly reframes the artist while clarifying Poitras’ governing structure. The problem, Goldin explains, was one of silence. A victim of abuse, Goldin’s mother was unable to break hers, and would pass those devastating effects down to her late daughter.

For the photographer, the lesson — the key that unlocks her intertwined art and activism — is to break that silence, to end that cycle of shame, to speak up and speak out, to see and make people feel seen. 

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens Nov. 23 in U.S theaters.

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