All the Beauty and the Bloodshed proceeds in such awe of its subject that it strips the film of any thorniness that the material demands.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a film of two threads. The first is Nan Goldin’s activism against the Sackler family, whose company, Purdue Pharma, actively marketed the highly addictive OxyContin to the public and doctors, leading directly to the opioid crisis. The second is Goldin exploring her own history, which itself is also intertwining two threads: her life and her work as a photographer. She resists drawing a distinction between the two, and so the film follows, intercutting with her present-day activism. The core claim of Goldin — and therefore the film, as director Laura Poitras is always following her lead — is that to separate these things is to obscure them. Early in her career she was told that nobody photographed their own life, that it must be subjugated to the idea of Great Art. When you let that happen, you get the kind of art in the Sackler Wing at the Met (or indeed, many other sections of museums that the family’s donations have got named after them). It feels big and important, it suggests prestige, but also seems deeply irrelevant to anyone’s real life.
When Goldin talks about her life, she’s intelligent and lucid, but it stands in strange contrast to how she precedes it. She states that “It’s easy to make your life into stories, but it’s harder to sustain real memories,” yet she’s full of clever but very neat conclusions like “survival was an art,” “photography was always a way to walk through fear,” and “normal people were marginalized to us.” She encloses her ideas in a way she doesn’t in her art: her most famous work, the slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) was constantly changing, both in that she literally changed the images, their order, and the accompanying music, but also because each photograph changed meaning to Goldin over time — there was enough space within them for that.
Goldin brings her work into her activism through the group she co-founded, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), whose meetings are often held in her house — their protest in the Guggenheim is especially beautiful. Visualizing Richard Sackler’s comments that OxyContin would cover America in a “blizzard of prescriptions,” these prescriptions are thrown down the iconic spiral and the museum’s center, creating an incredibly moving image that realizes art and activism as one. P.A.I.N. targets museums in particular because of their connection to Goldin: her work is usually a part of the permanent collection, and so she leverages her prestige against theirs, with the goal being first to get them to stop accepting Sackler money, and then to get their family name stripped entirely. Goldin saw their name at the Met before she’d ever heard of the family or OxyContin; it’s as if seeing that name opened some door in her mind, that it somehow ushered her own addiction into existence.
The way these threads of art and activism intertwine within the film itself — its form rather than just its footage — is much less compelling. Beyond the concept of these ideas sitting aside one another, they seldom interact in a way that isn’t according to mere linearity. It sometimes seems like Poitras is afraid to add anything to Goldin’s commentary, even if the structure invites it. In this way Bloodshed is quite like the director’s previous film, Risk (2018), which tried to be about WikiLeaks until the man at its center, Julian Assange, couldn’t help but take total control. His ego so consumed everything around him that the only way Poitras could hold the film together was with diaristic narration explaining her process. For her part, Goldin never attempts to steal the spotlight — she appears modest and thoughtful, happy to use her reputation as a tool, even if at its expense — but Poitras seems enamored by this to the degree that she never challenges her subject, never getting anything from her that doesn’t directly offer. The music especially speaks to this adoration and lack of vision, with “Ave Maria” and the like tacked on a exclamation points. It’s all just registers like a melodramatic and cliché way to say “I concur.”
When Goldin refuses to have an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery if they accept another Sackler donation, everything starts to fall into place; one gallery after the next commit to refusing Sackler money. If philanthropy was a matter of marketing the family — they’ve often been accused of reputation laundering — that has through this been undone. It may not effect their bottom line, little would, but it’s a clear and personal attack: a direct provocation to and refutation of the people responsible for so much suffering. A few members of the family are forced to sit in on a hearing with some of their victims and listen to the grisly consequences of their bottomless greed. But as Richard Sackler says in a Freudian slip, “I’ve seen everything.” These people know exactly what they’re doing, and they simply don’t care. Purdue files for bankruptcy, but the family members don’t; in fact, they funnel ten billion dollars from the company to their personal wealth beforehand. Corporate law then protects them, stopping a bankruptcy trial from becoming a criminal one. They’ve been pushed back into the shadows a bit, but it’s only the surface that has changed.
One of the members of P.A.I.N. says that it’s good they can fight the Sacklers from this insider space, the galleries, but it seems that then that they can only win on insider terms, that the crossover between art and activism is reaching its limits. To be clear, this isn’t the only work that P.A.I.N. does: we do see them funding a drug-testing machine, for example, but it’s not what the arc of the film is really concerned with. The whole thing ends on such a ridiculous swell when the Met finally takes down the name, we hear Goldin acknowledge the limits of this win, a recognition that seems, on the basis of the film, lost of Poitras. All nuance is washed away under the music, and the final product feels much more hollow than it really is. It makes it hard not to notice that the name is the only thing that’s changed. The Temple of Dendur wouldn’t be at the Met, and the entire wing that houses it wouldn’t exist without the Sackler’s donations; they’re still standing on the ground the Sacklers built.