These days, the idea of journaling your life – warts and all – through photography is well established. There’s a whole canon of photography that explores drug culture, for example, immortal images taken at what we now call an afters. We’re also used to seeing the arresting beauty of queer and trans people in fashion magazines. But before any of this, there was Nan Goldin.
Back in the early 1980s, her photographs did things we take for granted today. Her book and film, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was made up of hundreds of images (taken between 1979 – 1986) that chronicle the agony and ecstasy of kisses and quick hits in bathrooms, bedrooms and bars. Goldin is not voyeuristic but diaristic; her subject was herself and the people she lived with, got high with and slept with, namely gays and gurls, drug users and HIV-positive people. Operatic in its drama, atmosphere and colour tones, Ballad created a space for beauty by serenading its subjects. “It was about trying to hold onto people, making sure they didn’t disappear without a trace,” Goldin once explained of her portraits and the people in them.
Goldin’s impulse to hold onto people can be traced in the activist work she does today. In 2017, Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy organisation battling America’s opioid crisis. P.A.I.N. formed to direct attention towards the destruction caused by the Sackler Family, the billionaire American dynasty who created and rampantly marketed the prescription drug Oxycontin through their company Perdue Pharma.
P.A.I.N. aims to hold the Sacklers responsible for the hundreds of thousands of opioid overdoses that have taken place since the 1990s, and for the Sackler name to be removed from museums including The Louvre and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguing that the family’s donations to the arts have been a way to whitewash their image.
Following this campaign is the new documentary, All The Beauty and The Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras. In it, Goldin’s quest against big pharma is seen with unprecedented access. Lyrical and mostly shot in vérité style (essentially an artwork in itself), the film weaves Goldin’s personal story from childhood with the journey of her art and activism. It has already won awards including the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
For those unfamiliar with Goldin’s life and work, her onscreen persona – best described as “badass” – will likely hook you in. At 14, Goldin left home after her sister’s suicide to escape what she calls the “banality and deadening grip of suburbia”, to meet “the people running away from America who found each other”. Those people made up the queer, underground artistic community of New York’s Bowery that she went on to become a part of, including photographer David Armstrong, artist David Wojnarowicz and writer, actress and pop culture icon Cookie Mueller.
The film explains how Goldin broke into the art world, first by supporting herself as a sex worker and later joining the AIDS activism movement as a member of Act Up. Not to mention her time at legendary NYC haunt the Tin Pan Alley bar where she worked throughout the ’80s, and where Goldin began to show her photographs to friends and punters as slideshows set to music, constantly reshuffled, updated and as ephemeral as the moments they captured.
In the parts of the film that look most closely at the world of P.A.I.N., we see Goldin and the other activists in the group staging flash protests that almost double up as performance art, with a flair of theatricality inspired by Goldin’s time in Act Up. Similar in their methods, P.A.I.N. stage a die-in at The Met, throwing prescription pill bottles into the museum’s moat. They drop banners and rain fake opioid prescription notes from The Guggenheim balconies, then march through the streets shouting their slogan “Sacklers Lie, Thousands Die.”
As Goldin tells Poitras, “I thought the art world was bullshit and Times Square was real life”. It makes sense, then, that she would go on to call out the art world’s complicity in accepting dirty donation money. But in true Poitras style, All The Beauty delves deeper into what makes an activist, exploring how Goldin wanted to break the silence instilled by suburban life, win against big pharma for the friends she lost to the AIDS crisis, and make the Sacklers accountable for her own opioid addiction and fentanyl overdose. It paints a picture of someone who, over four decades, has consistently sought to redress power imbalances, erase stigma by making the invisible visible, and to preserve life – even if that meant literally photographing her friends in an open casket. It’s no coincidence that the band of outsiders that make up P.A.I.N resemble the kinds of people Goldin photographed.
Yet, as well as a laser-focused portrait, All The Beauty and The Bloodshed is also a film for our moment. While big and small screen hits like Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, Glass Onion and White Lotus use satire (for better or worse) as a means of encouraging us to “Eat the Rich”, All The Beauty reminds us that while it’s comforting to laugh, inequality and corporate greed can be deadly. That the Oxycontin epidemic, in a perverse way, speaks to a wider social problem: it’s a drug literally numbs the pain of the failed American dream.
The documentary’s unflinching crescendo (no spoilers) is a hard watch, but a useful one. In a time when the rich have never been richer, and we can feel desolate and small in the face of it all – its message is that we can actually do something. P.A.I.N.’s protests have been successful; the Sackler name has been taken down off gallery walls and they’ve been slapped with $6 billion in fines. All The Beauty offers much-needed proof that the “little guy” can triumph.