All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

After surviving opioid addiction, multi-media artist Nan Goldin founded the group PAIN with other artists and activists to target the pharmaceutical companies who profited from the crisis, with a particular mission to wipe the Sackler family name from the prestigious museums they benefited.  Director Laura Poitras presents a multi-faceted portrait of the artist, including the difficulties she endured being raised by a mother whose own abuse was never addressed.  Family dysfunction also resulted in the loss of her beloved sister Barbara to suicide, a sister she learned later in life titled a Rorschach blot “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Laura's Review: A-

Poitras initially intended to focus on Goldin’s opioid activism, but found the artist so open about her own lifetime issues, she decided to embrace everything in a fascinating six chaptered documentary.  By anchoring Goldin’s work to the trauma which inspired it, Poitras has pulled all the myriad aspects of the artist’s life together into one complex whole.

Jumping off from Goldin’s gritty portraits of the 70’s scene as she experienced it and ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ slideshow which constantly evolves and is continually returned to, Poitras dives into Chapter I. Merciless Loss.  Nan describes a ‘claustrophobic suburbia’ and the scene at her home on the day her sister’s suicide was reported, something which her mother lied about as her father wailed on their front lawn.  Poitras will return to this part of the story in far more detail in Chapter VI., Sisters, and segues into Goldin’s experience being prescribed OxyContin after surgery and background on the Sacklers, who began amassing their fortune by pushing valium in the 1950’s.

Coin of the Realm reveals that Nan’s parents sent her to a foster home in her early teens, an experience which profoundly shaped her through her friendship with David Armstrong, the young man she determined was gay while he gave her the name Nan.  The two joined a scene that included John Waters and others who would be lifelong friends, often clad in Fortuny gowns they found at Goodwill.  The filmmaker cuts back to the near present as PAIN stages a protest at the Guggenheim by creating a blizzard of prescription slips.

Further chapters will reveal Goldin’s survival as a stripper and sex worker before bartending at Tin Pan Alley, the bar recently fictionalized as the Hi Hat in HBO’s ‘The Deuce.’  She will have a relationship of many years with Brian, a man who she calls the love of her life but who nearly beat her to death in Berlin.  She photographs herself and calls it the ‘Battered Series’ and fights both Brian and her father publishing ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ as a book.  Ensuing chapters dive more heavily into the devastation of the opioid crisis on Goldin’s circle and the intimidation tactics used by the Sacklers as she and her movement begin to see results, the National Portrait Gallery becoming the first to turn down Sackler money.  Goldin will be one of many witnesses Richard, David and Theresa Sackler are forced to watch after a half a million have died.

After relating how Sacklers tried to use bankruptcy to evade thousands of civil suits, Poitras returns to the emotional core of Goldin’s story, the early loss of her sister.  Nan has her father send her Barbara’s box of medical records and it is only then that she learns how years of sexual abuse caused her mother to respond to her sister’s puberty in all the wrong ways.  Goldin incorporates the horrific details of her sister’s suicide (she laid on train tracks) into new work.

Poitras ends “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in celebration, the Met finally taking down the Sackler name once emblazoned on the entrance to ‘their’ wing.  Her non-linear structure and editing are a unique approach to the biographical documentary, an engrossing work which showcases all the ways Nan Goldin has left her mark. 

Robin's Review: B-

Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in select theaters on 11/23/22.  Click here for upcoming screening info.