This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.
Nan Goldin’s fingerprints are everywhere. The idiosyncratic photographer, activist and subject of Laura Poitras’ first feature documentary in six years is equal parts icon and iconoclast, an embodiment of what it means to hold two truths—wonderful and terrible—in balance: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
Where to begin with Nan Goldin? With her wild history of work? Her saga of personal and communal decimation? Her success in the art world against all odds? Her cataclysmic influence on the expression and commerce of high art? Perhaps, as the doc would have it, it’s best to start with her addiction: Goldin was first prescribed OxyContin in the ‘2010s after surgery while living in Berlin, where her daily intake quickly rose from three pills to 18. That’s where her war against the Sackler family began.
Bloodshed is structured into two intersplicing sections charging forward at a rate of devastation your tear ducts absolutely cannot keep up with. One section gives Goldin a platform to chronologically tell her life story. The other follows her years-long fight against the pharmaceutical reign of terror that is the appallingly inhumane Sackler/Purdue Pharma operation.
They are essentially the same story, Goldin’s story, but one starts at the beginning and looks ahead while the other starts in recent history and looks back, the two colliding and bringing us into the present, where the Goldin-founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) is slowly but surely ripping the Sacklers’ mouth from the teat of the art world it so desperately clings to for influence. Through targeting major museums and art institutions with Goldin’s work in the permanent collection (The Met, The Tate, The Guggenheim, etc.), P.A.I.N. is making remarkable progress in the dethroning of the Sacklers’ art philanthropy.
The film plays so as to exponentially grow the viewer’s appreciation for the socio-political and artistic anomaly that is Goldin, and Poitras doesn’t need to do much convincing: Goldin is narrating. An open book, sadistic charmer and seasoned storyteller, she has a dry, frank, true way with words, the kind of person that doesn’t need many to tell you what it means, a master in the art of phrasing. (“I brought him out and he named me Nan, so we liberated each other,” she says summarily of her connection to a dear, lifelong friend.)
Known best for her slideshows, Goldin flips through hundreds of pictures and tells story after story—each one gripping, culminating, well-delivered, giving way to an eagerness for the next—often returning to her most famous collection of over 700 photos on 35mm from 1983-2022, titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Overflowing with candor, the photography presents a life fully lived, aiming to capture the universal impossibility in the push-pull relationship between autonomy and dependency.
Goldin is a rare, holistic reflection of autonomy and dependency. The former is found in—well…everything, but especially—her career integrity to work outside the system or try to change it from within. The latter is found in the way she frames existence through a love of and need for community, just as much as it is in the loss of that community and the addiction that plagued it.
Her stark confrontation with death started at an early age with the suicide of her only sister, who was sent off for “treatment” for fear of queerness when in actuality their mother was in a debilitating mental state. Goldin’s familiarity with alienation, and resulting love for the fringes of society, came as a result of being fostered at age 14 and thrown out of every house she landed in, like her sister before her. Her experience with abuse runs from having her eyes beaten in by a jealous ex to sex work horror stories she’s only recently started telling to combat the stigma around the job.
In the ‘80s, her friends were dropping like flies in the wake of addiction and capital ignorance amid the AIDS epidemic (she compares it to WWII). Close collaborators and friends like David Wojnarowicz enter the doc and eventually leave with the weight of their life and work felt and lost in real time, dagger upon dagger of deaths that shouldn’t have happened wedged in her heart.
In between stories, Poitras builds out the generation-spanning criminality of the Sacklers through well-researched talking heads that illuminate the family’s cruelty. In short, they’ve built an empire off others’ pain through falsely marketing products that breeds addiction, knowing they’ll create catastrophic suffering, cascading demand and a constant flow of bloody profit. It’s an awfully depressing reality.
Lucky for us, Goldin never dwells on anything for too long. She’s a mover, a doer, a never-sleeper, a career organizer with incredible taste in all things expressive and enough gall for 10 people. Whether it’s challenging the National Endowment for the Arts for defunding work that dealt with AIDS or simply taking one metric shit-ton of photos a week, she never stops working. She chronicles her many jobs—like a Portuguese hot dog stand attendant in Pronvincetown, a dancer in New Jersey (“I danced to make enough money to buy film”) or a domineering bartender at a dive—and her lowest moments—like her first stint in rehab in ‘88 or the fentanyl overdose she miraculously came back from—and the onslaught of male resistance from the art world throughout.
She waxes poetic and wanes realistic about the various New York City neighborhoods she lived in at crucial cultural moments, rubbing shoulders with John Waters, Jim Jarmusch and the like, offering a fascinating glimpse into NYC history apart from everything else. She’s as much a chief creative force as Poitras on the outcome of the film (a “collaboration” they called it at the New York Film Festival premiere), especially when you consider how much of it is Goldin’s slideshows. Poitras peppers in some art theory and analysis on them from others so Goldin doesn’t have to, but for the most part, the two let the photos speak for themselves, almost never providing individual context. In slideshow form, they wash over you.
Goldin’s style looks so familiar because she’s been so influential, but it’s familiar in another sense, too. In the way that everyone you walk past in New York City looks like someone you’ve met before, her photos feel familiar, yet distinctively and unmistakably hers. She wasn’t precious about them. If a friend didn’t like the way they looked, they could rip it up and Nan wouldn’t care. She just wanted them to feel good about the photo. A talking head says the subjects in her photos are intriguing enough to feel like characters to onlookers but candid and real enough to appear to the subject simply as themselves—the ultimate compliment.
One of the most difficult elements is her complicated relationship with her parents, who deliver a bone-chilling, soul briefly leaving your body moment with a Heart of Darkness quote near the end, their dead daughter on the mind: “Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of inextinguishable regrets.” It captures the mood of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but it’s also what distinguishes Goldin most thoroughly from her parents: A life without regret. As Nan describes herself and her family—whom she defiantly defines as friends, the people whom she’s lived and learned alongside, not a romantic partner or biological family—they were “rebels running from America, living out the life they needed to live.” She says it of herself in the past, but All the Beauty and the Bloodshed shows that spirit still thriving, still moving, still turning the world around it upside-down.
Director: Laura Poitras
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.