An Achingly Personal Portrait of Nan Goldin

An Achingly Personal Portrait of Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin has always been a documentarian. The new film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed feels less like a biography than a natural extension of her life’s work, a kind of collaboration between director Laura Poitras and the famed photographer on a cinematic memoir. This is due partly to the documentary’s origin: initially Goldin was shooting her own material for a prospective film about her work with her advocacy group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN). Various meetings led Poitras to take the reins of the production, and under her hand the movie broadened beyond Goldin’s activism to become a portrait of her life and all she’s borne witness to.

Goldin has in many ways lived an archetypical New York artist’s life, the kind often romanticized in the latter half of the 20th century. She escaped a stultifying suburban childhood for the thrills and dangers of Lower Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s. Her iconic photographs are achingly personal. The images are messy, intimate, the kind of candid shots you’d expect to find in a photo album rather than a gallery, yet compelling in color and composition. They found their most potent form in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, an epic slideshow that Goldin has continued to edit and adjust since she first exhibited it in 1986.

Over the years, Goldin has watched many of her subjects — who were also her close friends, lovers, and colleagues — die before their time, falling victim to drug abuse, societal neglect, the AIDS epidemic, or some combination thereof. Goldin herself survived her parents’ hostile upbringing, an adolescence shuttled between various foster homes, exploitative sex work, partner abuse, and a near-fatal addiction to painkillers. She has spoken about much of this before, but to hear her discuss it matter-of-factly in the film can be harrowing. Yet the emotional intensity generated in these moments also allows viewers to understand her passion for her work with PAIN, which concentrates on harm reduction for opioid users while also working to hold those responsible for the opioid crisis to account.

Nan Goldin photographed by Russel Hart

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a rare artist bio-doc with a clear villain. The Sackler family, owners of the pharmaceutical giant Purdue, did much to help precipitate the surge in US opioid abuse by directly promoting the widespread use of OxyContin. The Sacklers are also prolific art collectors, and for decades have made endowments and donations to museums across the world. Goldin has seen her work displayed in museums bearing the name of the family that was essentially her pusher. The film begins with PAIN’s opening salvo against the Sacklers, their 2018 action at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that’s followed by protests at the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and others. Even as unprecedented class-action lawsuits fail to wring enough blood from this stone, Goldin and PAIN are insistent that the Sacklers cannot use art as a fig leaf — particularly given how many artists have been marginalized before their untimely deaths, only to be rehabilitated and sanitized by institutions.

Poitras is one of the most politically astute US documentarians currently working, certainly the best of the class that used the form to interrogate the conditions of the post-9/11 security state and the War on Terror. The transition from the George W. Bush to the Barack Obama era did not cloud her critique of authority, and she helped break one of the biggest news stories of the decade in her Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden and the NSA, Citizenfour (2014). 

Then 2016’s Risk complicated Poitras’s approach. Initially a sympathetic look at Julian Assange amid his legal battle over rape charges that could lead to his extradition to the US, Assange’s increasingly erratic and misogynistic behavior spurred her to recut the film between its Cannes premiere and its eventual release. The film evolved into a critical look at thorny power dynamics, both at the macro level between governments and populations and at the micro, interpersonal level. She extends this critique to herself, admitting to a brief romantic relationship with WikiLeaks collaborator Jacob Appelbaum, who faced his own allegations of sexual harassment and assault during the production. She acknowledges that the walls we may erect between the personal and political, the subjective and objective, are not so solid.

Nan Goldin, “Self portrait with scratched back after sex”

This approach directly informs All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Poitras and Goldin share a similar understanding of the relationship between politics, activism, and power. Goldin came to this knowledge through decades of hard-fought experience. The film alternates between a more traditional observational doc, following PAIN’s meetings and protests and Goldin’s present-day work with the organization, and flashback sequences in which her audio reminisces about her life play over images of her artwork. 

The bifurcation is vivid. The film could be seen jointly as a Poitras political piece and a Goldin artwork. But that would obscure on the one hand Goldin’s razor-sharp political acumen (“We should close the prisons, but the last people in them should be the Sacklers”), and on the other hand the tenderness with which Poitras weaves together Goldin’s words and pictures. By re-presenting her works as personal documents, Poitras returns them to their original state, as photographs of Goldin’s loved ones.

The temporal back and forth is not mere narrative flourish. The structure forcefully posits multiple parallels between the world Goldin grew up in and the one she fights in today — between AIDS and the opioid crisis, between historical and contemporary neglect of the marginalized, between queer life then and now. Most heartbreakingly, the movie observes how Purdue’s first big pharmaceutical success, the one that set the blueprint for the aggressive sales strategy they’d later unleash to devastating effect with OxyContin, was with Valium — the kind of drug that would have been used to treat Goldin’s beloved older sister, Barbara, who was institutionalized by their parents.

In Goldin’s view, Barbara’s institutionalization, supposedly for “acting out,” was really due to conflicts over her queerness. Her subsequent suicide made a young Nan realize she needed to escape. And she did, only to watch so many members of her found family succumb to similar fates. The film has a veritable litany of such figures: Cookie Mueller, David Armstrong, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is named after a snippet of psychiatric observation about Barbara, embodying the film’s study of the long and ongoing tragedy seen in the medicalization of those who veer from the status quo in modern life. That alienation is a recurring theme of Goldin’s work, and here it becomes a through line for her as one of the last of her cohort still standing. This film is a survivor’s testimony, delving into the archive to brutally bittersweet effect. 

Nan and Barbara holding hands

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is currently in select theaters and opens nationwide in December.

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