During one of many rousing public demonstrations shown in Laura Poitras’s new documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a middle-aged activist lays out—in the plain, swift terms made possible, at this historical moment, by sheer grim familiarity—the consequences of her child’s encounter in his teens with the painkiller OxyContin. “I don’t expect the Sacklers to care about my son,” she goes on. “But 400,000 lives? Somebody should care about that.”
Though forceful and affecting, the bereaved mother’s words are also eerily undermined by their context. Poitras’s film—a collaboration with the visual artist Nan Goldin—zooms in on a single life in rich detail. Using archival footage and voice-over, as well as Goldin’s own artwork spanning decades, it tells Goldin’s story from her unhappy suburban childhood to her breakthrough as a photographer in the 1980s to her own addiction and activism.
Goldin has always been singularly adept at presenting a vision of her own experiences that emphasizes their broader resonance: In her late teens, she started photographing her friends and crushes among the queer and drag communities of Boston in the 1970s. After moving to New York, she became famous for her highly influential diaristic work in a similar vein. Gorgeously mythologizing yet frank in its depiction of drug use and violence along with many forms of camaraderie, her photographs document a vivid social world, around the Bowery, that would soon all but disappear. Many of her subjects did not survive the 1990s, thanks to the AIDS crisis. In Poitras’s film, we are granted the brief but mesmeric presence of the late artist and writer David Wojnarowicz, and see the young Goldin and her friends in snippets from underground films like Bette Gordon’s Variety.
Goldin documented her own period of intense dependence on OxyContin, originally prescribed to her for a surgery, in the January 2018 issue of Artforum, in a portfolio of images with titles like Self Portrait 1st Time on Oxy, Berlin, 2014; Dope on My Rug, New York, 2016; and Pain/Sackler, Royal College of Art, London, 2017. She included short, sharp, personal testimony, describing her swift progression to an all-consuming addiction, a fentanyl overdose, and a stint in rehab, and she announced her formation of the group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN. Her central project since then has targeted the Sackler family, who ran Purdue Pharma, and whose aggressive marketing techniques helped spawn the current opioid epidemic. She eventually persuaded institutions, including the Met, the Louvre, the Tate, and the Guggenheim, to remove the Sackler name from their walls and reject or return the family’s funding.