June Butler reviews Laura Poitra’s documentary about photographer Nan Goldin.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is about a middle-class family in turmoil, and a child’s anguished pleas to be seen and heard. It tells the story of an attempt to obliterate pain like no other, addiction to self-immolation and finding ultimate salvation through self-discovery. At the centre of this saga lies a modest lone warrior, Nan Goldin, who bravely and courageously went into battle against one of the most powerful and wealthy dynasties in America, the billionaire Sackler family.
To comprehend Goldin’s immense heroism however, her early life must be scrutinised because childhood traumas are the root to understanding how and why Goldin entered into the fray with such stoic relentlessness. The toxic household culture where Goldin grew up, in some facets, ran in tandem with the omnipotent Sackler family who metaphorically annihilated all who stood in their way. So too did her own parents. This state of destruction was a schema that Goldin recognised and understood – when she put thoughts into action by facing her fears, the yokes of tragedy were cast off and she became a voice for the silenced millions, including herself.
In the mid-nineties, Purdue Pharma introduced a prescription opioid painkiller called OxyContin to the US market. Behind Purdue, lay the philanthropic Sackler family – bastions of culture and supporters of the Visual Arts. Aggressively marketed as non-addictive (or less addictive than most other painkillers), OxyContin rapidly became the ‘go-to’ prescription drug choice for millions across America. It cut through class and earning power, bringing together rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged, across a blur of pain-relief. It was hailed as a panacea for all ailments and along with a moderate price-tag, seemed to give hope to sufferers without any of the nasty side-effects normally associated with this type of drug. By 1999 however, the zeitgeist had changed for the worse, with alarming indications of chronic addiction and a rapid escalation of deaths directly linked to the drug. Fast forward to 2022, and the United States and Canada are in the grip of an epidemic that has directly caused the deaths of over 600,000 people. By factoring in the ripple effect on the children, families, partners, and friends of these heart-breaking fatalities, the consequences are incalculable. The pain of losing someone in such a horrific way, is multi-generational. It travels down through the years and can affect people for many decades after the terrible event.
Nan Goldin is a powerhouse of determination. Born in 1953 to middle-class Jewish parents, she idolised her much older sister, Barbara. The family atmosphere was tense – sexuality was very much repressed and when Barbara came out as gay, she was sent to a reformatory school and shunned. In 1965, after struggling with mental health for a number of years, Barbara died by suicide. She lay down on the tracks of a commuter train just outside Washington D.C. Goldin states defiantly that it was “an act of immense will”. By the age of 13 or 14, Nan was well on the path to her own personal rebellion. At 14, Goldin left home. Still struggling with Barbara’s death, when she turned 16, Goldin graduated towards the medium of photography, finding a modicum of peace in trying to pictorially preserve those connections she cherished. Nan has run headlong towards honesty in all its forms, embracing the subculture of LGBT relationships and being unflinchingly forthright in her own intimate affairs. In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), she took pictures of people having sex and included images of herself. In Goldin’s view, she couldn’t ask others to be raw and uncensored if she was not prepared to do the same. Goldin included photographs showing the aftermath of a particularly vicious assault at the hands of a boyfriend. Purple bruises, pained bloodshot eyes, and subcutaneous discolouration, are chronicled over a period of days as outward evidence disappears but inner devastation stays the same. One photo shows Goldin after one month of healing from the physical attack. I asked myself the question – if this is an image taken 30 days later, and it is utterly horrific, how bad must it have been when the assault first occurred?
It is unsurprising therefore, that Goldin herself ultimately would fall under the sway of OxyContin given that she had a heroin addiction in the 80’s. In 2014, Goldin was in Berlin and needed an operation for tendonitis in her left wrist. After the operation, she was prescribed OxyContin as pain relief. Within 48 hours, she was addicted, rapidly increasing her intake to 15 tablets a day. When Goldin returned to New York, she found a dealer on call 24 hours and within two weeks, had progressed onto crushing the pills and snorting them. She admits to rarely leaving her room as the crisis escalated. Goldin maintained that she had a higher rate of opiate receptors because of her previous heroin addiction, and it took a full year before realising she needed help. Not however, before overdosing on Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid considered to be 100 times more powerful than heroin. When Goldin admitted herself to rehab and was being treated by the same doctor who weaned her off heroin in 1989, she realised there was a far-reaching epidemic and Goldin was but one of millions who had suffered.
With the same quiet relentlessness applied to surviving through her teenage years and beyond, Goldin decided to challenge Purdue Pharma and ultimately the Sackler family for their actions in promoting a drug they knew was highly addictive. In 2017, Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), and proceeded to highlight the links between the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. Striking at the heart of their public image by bringing the fight to the museums and art institutions where wings were named after the Sacklers, and where the name was ubiquitous, Goldin became ever more emboldened. Her own work had been exhibited in many of these museums and Goldin knew she was risking her career by continuing on the same trajectory. Nan staged ‘die-ins’ at the museums. She galvanised other members of P.A.I.N. to stand along the ramps of upper floors in the Guggenheim and jettison thousands of fake prescriptions from the heights. They threw empty prescription bottles into the water feature at the base. This brings a stark parallel into focus when considering Purdue Pharma’s prediction in the early 90s (during the launch of OxyContin), that it would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”.
The behaviour of the Sackler family has been less than edifying. There was talk of female P.A.I.N. activists being followed and harassed. The Sackler family legal representatives strongly denied this but there is evidence to support the activist’s claims. In 2019, two years after Goldin started her campaign, acclaimed director Laura Poitras came on board. Goldin was told that if she wanted the documentary to be truly seen, she needed a director who was used to this genre and had already made a name for themselves in the field. Their relationship was at times fractious and difficult – unsurprising when looking at the two characters involved. Both strong women who were used to being told ‘yes’. But Goldin maintains their friendship was never under threat and they remain close to this day.
Bit by bit, the campaign ratcheted up the pressure. The first museum to remove the Sackler name from its 12-room wing of Near Eastern antiquities was The Louvre in Paris. In 2019, the museum announced that the decision was based on a policy that limited naming rights, not on the Sackler family’s connections to OxyContin. But the name was removed nonetheless regardless of the motives, which was a positive start.
The Serpentine Galleries renamed the space formerly known as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the Serpentine North Gallery. They declared that philanthropic donations from the family would no longer be accepted. In 2019, artist Hito Steyerl called on the Serpentine and other museums to fully sever ties with the Sacklers. London’s National Portrait Gallery turned down a $1.3 million donation to the institute, marking the first time Sackler funding was publicly refused. Tate galleries have announced that they will no longer accept funding from the Sackler family.
In 2019, one month after Nan Goldin staged a ‘die-in’ at the Guggenheim Museum, they stated that no further donations would be received or accepted.
One of the last institutions to capitulate, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum finally succumbed to pressure and in October 2022, said that the Sackler name would be removed from its walls.
Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019.
In September 2021, Purdue Pharma was finally dissolved but not before the company was forced to pay $4.5 billion dollars by way of compensation to the families of the people who died.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an astonishing documentary and one that should be screened in every cinema and university across the world. It should be mandatory viewing for those old enough to watch it. In this country it’s classified as Over 18 and rightly so given the harrowing scenes of deprivation and violence both in Goldin’s personal life and the heart-wrenching descriptions of relatives on losing a loved one to addiction. Nan Goldin is to be saluted. This was not an easy fix and when Goldin first started the fight, she did it alone. But she faced the fire, walked over the burning coals, and won.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is in cinemas from 23rd January 2023.