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Nathan Weinbender reviews "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed"


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is three stories in one. It’s a documentary portrait of the queer nightlife of 1980s New York City, an exposé of the billionaire Sackler family and their grip on the pharmaceutical industry, and a biography of the photographer Nan Goldin, whose work as an artist and activist has found her on the frontlines of two health crises: the AIDS epidemic of the Reagan era and the intensifying opioid crisis of today.

It doesn’t seem like these threads would ever intertwine in a way that’s narratively successful or even logical, but the director, Laura Poitras, unites these seemingly dissimilar worlds into a rich, totally absorbing story of contradictions: it’s about life and death, greed and benevolence, starving artists and the richest people on the planet.

The easiest way to discuss the film is to begin with the details of Nan Goldin’s life. Born in 1953, she was raised in Boston in what she calls “the deadening grip of suburbia,” by a family that was dealing with undiagnosed mental illness and that never quite recovered from the suicide of Nan’s older sister when they were both children. Goldin eventually moved to New York City in the late 1970s, when the punk scene was evolving into new wave, and where she befriended the musicians, drag performers and sex workers that would become the subjects of her photography.

The bulk of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed adopts the form of Goldin’s work: a series of her photos flash on the screen, and she narrates in a conversation with Poitras about her past. Goldin’s pictures are remarkably candid, sometimes to a voyeuristic degree. They depicted gender dynamics and sexual power imbalances, including a stinging series of photos that show Goldin recovering from a physically abusive relationship.

Goldin’s work wasn’t really transgressive for its time because of its explicitness, but because of its mundanity. Her early subjects tended to be people who had been rejected by mainstream society, and yet her camera sees them not as outcasts or weirdoes but as real people who experienced joy, disappointment, contentment and longing, just like anyone else. In capturing her friends in moments both dramatic and unremarkable, she captured their complete lives.

Of course, many of those lives would be snuffed out before the ’90s were over, both because of drugs and because of AIDS, and certainly the anger and despondency of watching an entire community die informs her current fight. In 2017, Goldin was prescribed OxyContin and developed an addiction, and after undergoing recovery, she founded a support group called P.A.I.N., or Prescription Addiction Intervention Now.

It’s at this point in the film when the New York art world and the world of pharma billionaires collide. The Sackler family were responsible for the proliferation of OxyContin, always aware of its highly addictive properties, but they’re also major art benefactors. Goldin and her collaborators, inspired by the AIDS activists of the ’80s and ’90s, stage pointed, theatrical demonstrations at museums bearing the Sackler name, and in this second chapter of her life, she has essentially created another form of interactive art.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which took home the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival and is up for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, is a fascinating and deeply moving history lesson, a thorny biography, and an infuriating political screed about unchecked power. Goldin made a career telling the stories of people she describes as running away from America, but the irony is that their stories turned out to be so distinctly American, with all the pleasure and all the pain that comes with it.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, Friday evenings at 6:30 PM on KPBX.

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  • “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an intimate look at a survivor’s quest for justice, Dan Webster says in his review.
  • The Oscars are coming on Sunday, and the question is—as has been true for the past couple of years—will the annual broadcast offer up any surprises? On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be offering up their picks, both who they think will win and who they think should win. They’ll also review one of the Feature Documentary nominees, Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”