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In ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ Nan Goldin fights a very good fight

Laura Poitras’s documentary follows the photographer’s crusade against the Sackler family for its past promotion of opioids.

Nan Goldin (left) in the bathroom with Bea Boston in an image from the 1970s used in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”NEON

Laura Poitras, the director of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” is best known for “Citizenfour” (2014), which won an Oscar, and “Risk” (2016). What those documentaries have in common are a focus on whistleblowing and surveillance. There’s a more fundamental connection, though, one shared with “All the Beauty.” At its heart, each film is a character study.

“All the Beauty” starts screening Dec. 9 at the Coolidge Corner.

With “Citizenfour,” the character is NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. With “Risk,” it’s Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks. With “All the Beauty,” it’s the photographer and activist Nan Goldin. The documentary’s chief concern is Goldin’s ongoing crusade against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, for its marketing of opioid painkillers. But it’s no less about Goldin’s personal history and art. With her unblinking forcefulness and gingery tangle of hair, she’s the film’s impassioned heart and soul.


A long history of Sackler philanthropy means that the name resides on many impressive walls. “They have washed their blood money through halls of museums and universities throughout the world,” Goldin says in “All the Beauty.” “The whole Sackler enterprise has been about marketing, not just Oxycontin but also the family name.”

In 2017, Goldin founded an activist group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN). “The goal is to get the names off the walls,” Goldin says. “As long as the names are there, [the Sacklers] retain the hold on their reputation.”

Goldin’s motivation went beyond politics and principle. After surgery, she was prescribed Oxycontin for pain relief and became addicted. At one point, she was taking as many as 18 pills a day; later, she nearly died from a fentanyl overdose. “As my habit grew it was never enough,” she says in the film. So opioid abuse is not an abstract issue for Goldin. “My anger at the Sackler family is personal,” she says. “I hate these people. But it’s not about my own addiction. When you think about their profit off of these [other] people’s pain, you can only be angry.”


Following the example of AIDS activists during the ‘80s and ‘90s with ACT-UP, PAIN has staged protests and “die-ins” at museums and other public settings. A particularly striking one is included in the film. PAIN protesters position themselves throughout New York’s Guggenheim Museum and then fling fake prescription slips. The sight of them fluttering down the museum’s central rotunda is at once beautiful and sinister.

Poitras cuts back and forth between Goldin’s activities with PAIN and her biography and art. Each strand is more effective for how the director has braided them together. This approach makes sense thematically as well as formally. The outsider status that defined Goldin’s youth applies no less — and even more proudly — to her photography and activism.

Barbara and Nan Goldin holding hands in the 1950s.courtesy Nan Goldin/Neon

Goldin, 69, grew up in Swampscott and Lexington. If she’s the movie’s heart and soul, the memory of her older sister, Barbara, is its conscience. The film’s title comes from a phrase Barbara used once in a psychiatric interview. She was 18 when she committed suicide. Nan was 11. “She stood up for herself and talked back,” Nan says. “Her rebellion was the starting point for my own. She showed me the way.”

After Barbara’s death, Goldin “made an art of” getting thrown out of schools and foster homes, she says. She made a different kind of art with a camera. “Photography was always a way to walk through fear,” she says. “It gave me a reason to be there.”


Goldin moved to New York after graduating from what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. It was the late ‘70s, and the Lower East Side was full of drugs and sex and punk rock and a sense of transgressive exploration. A Clash concert was her first date with Brian, the man who’s with Goldin on the cover of her book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” “People would say we were marginalized,” Goldin says. “We didn’t care. Normal people were marginalized to us.”

With her camera, Goldin chronicled the milieu she belonged to. What Brassaï had been to Paris in the ’30s, Goldin was to her slice of New York — the key difference that she was participant as well as observer. Part of the wonder of “Ballad” is how naturally it combines the shocking (shooting up, practicing very unsafe sex) with the mundane (weddings, Scrabble games). Goldin started putting the images together in a slide show, with a soundtrack, and that became “Ballad.” In a nice touch, the closing credits list Goldin as “music consultant.”

Poitras makes a point of varying the film visually, with everything from Goldin family photos and slides to news footage to a Purdue television ad. But Goldin, compelling and unillusioned, is the star that “All the Beauty” steers by.


“We started fighting a lot,” she says of her relationship with Brian. “I was good at fighting.” All kinds of fighting, it would seem. Parts of the documentary are not for the faint of heart, and most of those involve Goldin, about whom there is nothing faint. That extends to a mordant wit. “Misery does not love company,” she remarks. “Misery loves attention.” As someone once said, attention must be paid. Goldin’s seen to it that it has been, and in all sorts of ways.

After the 3:30 p.m. screening on Dec. 10, the Coolidge will host a panel discussion with three PAIN activists, moderated by Coolidge deputy director Beth Gilligan.



Directed by Laura Poitras. At Coolidge Corner. 122 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, language, drug use, descriptions of graphic violence, scenes of general downtown/bohemian transgression)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.