This All the Beauty and Bloodshed review contains very mild spoilers. It was originally published, from The Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. All the Beauty and Bloodshed is now streaming on HBO Max.
The summer of 2015, I wandered into The Whitney alone. As if in a trance, I found myself in a dark room off to the side, a slideshow projected on the wall. Image after image captivated me and I ended up spending the whole afternoon watching and rewatching in awe. This slideshow was Nan Goldin’s seminal The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
At the time, I said it connected with me because the visual language was perfect for my next film. And it’s true that I would give the DP a Pinterest board filled with Goldin’s photos and thank Goldin in the credits. But when I came out a year and a half later, I realized my connection to her work went deeper than lighting. She is a queer woman and she was documenting her queer community. I’d seen images of queer people before, trans people before but never through the eyes of someone who loved them. It was a gaze I felt called to imitate.
Laura Poitras’ remarkable documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is about Nan Goldin and her work — it’s also about Goldin’s campaign to take down the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, the company who manufactured Oxycontin. The brilliance of the film is it shows these aspects of her life to be one in the same.
If Nan Goldin is a superhero, then this film is her origin story. Poitras has created a layered portrait that reveals the kind of woman who rather than resting on her art world laurels would spend her days organizing against the family that created and profited off the opioid crisis. It begins with Goldin’s sister who was institutionalized as a teenager for being queer eventually leading to her suicide. It then explores Goldin’s own queerness and the community of outsiders that become her chosen family. It covers her time as a sex worker, her experience with domestic violence, her personal challenges with addiction, and her activism in the fight against AIDS.
Before all of this leads to the Sacklers, it leads to her art. Goldin began taking photographs, because it was the only way she felt comfortable interacting with the world after her traumatic childhood. She took photos of the people she knew — the queer people she knew — capturing their lives as an insider. Through intimate audio interviews with Goldin, the context behind the work is explained. But it’s all there on-screen in the photos. The intimacy, the joy, the pain.
Goldin says that she always wanted her friends to like the photos she took of them, for it to feel like a collaboration. This film feels like Poitras returning the favor. She’s not making a documentary of Goldin, she’s making a documentary with Goldin.
And what Goldin cares about most right now is the Sacklers. Threaded throughout the fascinating, personal look at Goldin’s life and art is the work of her group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). It covers the die-ins and other demonstrations they do at museums that take Sackler money and display the Sackler name. It shows their attempts to prevent the Sacklers from being able to declare bankruptcy while keeping billions. It displays the minutiae and challenges of effective organizing.
Goldin is fighting against the Sacklers, but she’s fighting even harder to change what our culture keeps secret. She wants drug users to have access to safe injection sites. She wants billionaires to not have their reputations protected by philanthropy. She wants sexuality not to be hidden. She wants sex work not to be stigmatized. She wants to take pictures of her face covered in bruises and put it in a museum.
When discussing her trans women friends, she says that to them survival was an art. For Goldin, the same has proven true. She became a photographer in order to survive and her artistic practice has continued to document that survival. She has lost so many, fought so hard for those who remain. She has remained principled in an unprincipled world.
Goldin’s wins against the Sacklers were always going to be minor. In real life, David doesn’t kill Goliath — at best he wounds him. And yet, this film shows that we have to keep trying for those small victories. For Goldin, for us all, there has to be beauty amid the bloodshed.