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Dan Webster reviews "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed"


Growing up in a suburb of Boston, Nan Goldin was witness to the emotional struggles that eventually became too much for her older sister Barbara to handle. When Barbara committed suicide, Goldin realized all too well the forces that had shaped her sister’s decision.

She outlined those forces in the introduction to her 1985 slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, in which she wrote about her sister and the “role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction. Because of the times, the early sixties, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behavior, beyond control.”

Though affected by the same forces that crushed her sister, Goldin would emerge to become a renowned photographer and social activist. Her story is captured in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-nominated feature documentary All the Beauty and Bloodshed, which is streaming through a number of services.

Goldin forged her own path in life by rebelling against the suburban lifestyle of her parents, which she, too, found stifling. Still in her teens, she immersed herself in Boston’s LGBTQ and transgender communities, documenting those she met through her photography. Later, after graduating from art school, she moved to New York and began her career in earnest, her subjects now—many being her friends—part of New York’s gay scene of the late 1970s.

In that post-Stonewall era, Goldin focused on capturing the lives of many people who—though immortalized through her photographs—would be dead in the coming years either of AIDS or drug overdoses or both. Goldin herself, in her 60s, developed an addiction to Oxycontin and nearly died when her addiction got out of hand.

But she survived, went through rehab, and then found a greater purpose: holding those she saw as responsible—the Sackler family. Owners of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that manufactured and marketed Oxycontin, the Sacklers had made billions from prescription drug sales. They had also made a reputation—dating back to the three brothers who founded the firm—as wealthy donors to art museums all over the world.

Goldin founded a movement called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N., which targeted the Sacklers through the museums—including New York’s Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Britain’s Tate Galleries and Paris’ The Louvre. Goldin’s demand: that all references to the Sackler family be removed, all donations rejected.

Poitras captures all this, though it is always Goldin herself to whom she returns. The Sacklers are seldom seen, except for a trio of them near the film’s end when they are part of an online deposition. But they don’t need to be. Their story has been captured in a number of other documentaries, including HBO’s Crime of the Century and Hulu’s Dopesick, not to mention author Patrick Radden Keefe’s nonfiction book Empire of Pain.

With Goldin, who is now 69, providing the narration (and being one of the film’s producers), All the Beauty and the Bloodshed focuses primarily on Goldin’s evolution both as a person profoundly affected by trauma and as the artist whose work involves a stratum of society that, at least 50 years ago, wasn’t a subject your typical museum was interested in featuring.

This isn’t the first time that Poitras has explored the life of someone who dares to challenge authority. Her film Citizenfour, which involved her traveling to Hong Kong to interview former intelligence consultant Edward Snowden, won the 2015 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

In Goldin, she centers on a woman whose life becomes her art, and whose art becomes her mission. In scene after scene, we watch as Poitras’ camera captures Goldin and her P.A.I.N. confederates demonstrating in one museum after the next, risking arrest and ridicule, before finally achieving their aim.

The Sackler family members still face a number of civil suits. But thanks to Goldin, Poitras and others, the world now knows the harm they have caused—the kind of harm no amount of philanthropy can disguise.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for

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  • In her new documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” director Laura Poitras examines both the life of photographer Nan Goldin and the origins of America’s opioid epidemic. Nathan Weinbender says the disparate threads come together in ways both surprising and deeply moving.
  • 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.”