All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Review: Nan Goldin vs. the Sacklers

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, photographer Nan Goldin tells a sad, insightful, and in her own way quite funny, anecdote about first gathering her photographs—casually transgressive images of herself and her friends—in the 1980s. who were often drag queens and addicts, along with shots of the various other people and situations they experienced as part of New York’s buzzy dirty East Village subculture – and tried to shop them in galleries and museums, they were flatly rejected because the Taste judges, who were inevitably male, favored black and white photographs composed in an elegant, careful manner. Goldin’s photographs were garish verité colors and set in environments so dingy (messy bohemian apartments, common people just hanging around) that it seemed to the gallery connoisseur that there was no visual organization for them, no art.

Looking back 40 years, this is telling, because what you see now is that Goldin was nothing short of a post-punk Diane Arbus, and that the deceptive “randomness” of her images pulsed with life and was the key to her power and mystery. In fact, she had an exceptional eye for composition. Her photos, which she organized into slideshows like “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” seemed to have been taken spontaneously, but they were portraits. They told the stories of the people inside, so the more you looked, the more you saw. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the fifth documentary directed by Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, Risk), is a portrayal of Goldin, and a skillful and satisfying one at that, though not a conventional biography. Half of it is about Goldin’s life and work, the other half about her 2018 campaign against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that started the opioid crisis.

“Created” is the essential word. If you watch Alex Gibney’s four-hour HBO documentary The Crime of the Century or read Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Keefe is interviewed in Poitras’ film), you’ll understand all the ways and way, like opioid overprescribing, that intentionality Getting people addicted to it was the cornerstone of the Sackler family’s business plan. The Sacklers became de facto drug lords under the guise of medical legality. Half a million people in the US have died from opioid addiction, but it wasn’t until Goldin became addicted to OxyContin herself in 2017 that she realized the danger and learned about the multifaceted, calculating ways Purdue Pharma had orchestrated in the crisis for profit’s sake.

That outraged Goldin. But what she also learned is that the Sacklers have been among the art world’s most revered donors of the past half-century, giving millions and millions of dollars to the world’s most celebrated museums, in no small part to distract from their business practices by their cultured and polished image as philanthropists. Many of these institutions, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, had a Sackler wing. And since the art world was Goldin’s world, it was achingly filled with disgust at the hypocrisy of the Sacklers’ image laundering. As she says in the film, “They washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.” She decided to start a protest to expose the Sacklers’ sins and shove the family out of the art world, which at the time seemed like the definition of a punky David challenging a corporate Goliath. She was right to take on the Sacklers, but she was an artist, not a lawyer or politician. How much could she really do?

Also, as someone moved and outraged by the Sackler saga (aka: the story behind the story of the opioid crisis, a catastrophe that continues to this day), I wondered for a while if “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” was the film about Nan Goldin that I really wanted to see. I have long found her photographs exceptional and wanted to know more about her. The Sackler battle, valiant as it is, was less historical and less personal, something that certainly belongs in a documentary about it, but perhaps not on this scale.

But All the Beauty and the Bloodshed takes the two elements – Nan Goldin’s art and her activism – and shows you how they are actually woven together in an exhilarating way. The film honors her activism and presents it as a living whistleblower story, but also uses it to expose her art.

What is profound and incendiary about All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the way Laura Poitras unearths the story of how deeply rooted in trauma Nan Goldin’s photographs are. The photos always had a vitality; She first started taking them in Boston in 1973, where she first connected with the gay subculture of the time, along with the demigod of drag queens (who could be arrested just for walking down the street) and her bone-deep appreciation of the The humanity of the friends she photographed was a pick-me-up. But the film goes back to tell the story of Goldin’s clueless, domineering, and repressive parents and her older sister, Barbara — a free spirit who came to the suburbs early for the ’60s and was institutionalized for having “impulses.” we would now consider healthy. She committed suicide in 1964 at the age of 15 (when Nan was 11) by lying on train tracks.

The whole shape of this tragedy haunted Nan Goldin. We see an excerpt from a psychiatrist’s report, which shows that the girls’ mother needed psychiatric treatment far more urgently than did Barbara. She was imprisoned for no valid reason. I have a feeling (although the documentary never says so) that Goldin did in fact consider her sister’s death to be murder. And what attracted them, first in Boston and then in New York amidst the dingy world of the Bowery, was people who showed their damage on the outside: in their clothes (torn and frayed; S&M leather), their drug use and exhibitionist devotion, the Look in her eyes of godless and maybe glamorous hunger. She photographed her own version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, only there was no Factory.

Behind Goldin’s work lurks the sense of life itself as predatory. Her mother (to her) was a predator, and that touched her so much about the Sacklers — that they were unjust authority figures who repeated that oppression. And we also see how the currents of pain in Goldin’s work became evident during the AIDS crisis, which decimated the community in which she lived and which she documented with unrelenting passion and humanity.

Goldin herself has often been featured in her photos, where she comes across as a bright-eyed post-punk pixie. She lived her adventures, though they were tinged with despair. She worked in a strip club in New Jersey and reveals in the film for the first time that she became a sex worker in a New York brothel; This is how she financed the purchase of raw film. Bisexual, she appeared in the playfully subversive films of Bette Gordon and Vivienne Dick, became close friends with reigning scene star and former John Waters star Cookie Mueller, and worked behind the bar at Tin Pan Alley, a female-owned watering hole in Times Square (they refused to have a male bouncer), which became a nighttime community of the dispossessed.

But Goldin, now 68, also became something unlikely and inspirational: a Artist of activism. We see the events she orchestrated to shine the spotlight on the Sacklers’ pedestal in the art world, and some of them are ingenious, like dropping hundreds of opioid prescriptions as confetti from the top of the Guggenheim Museum during an opening there. Early on, museums ignore them; You don’t want to risk losing funding. But she keeps the drumbeat going, and when the National Portrait Gallery in London agrees to reject a million-dollar donation from the Sacklers after a protest, the dominoes began to fall as other fabled institutions — the Tate, the Louvre — follow. Goldin’s goal was to remove the Sacklers’ name from museum galleries. And by the end of the documentary, the Met, setting a seismic precedent, does just that. It’s a moment of triumph, even if the true theme of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” — and in a way, Goldin’s art — is the rending costs of the trauma remain. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Review: Nan Goldin vs. the Sacklers

Charles Jones

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