“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”: The War on Sacklers

Nan Goldin lying down in front of a museum as a protest against the Sacklers. Fake dollar bills are stuck to her which read "OXY" instead of "ONE".

Worthless OxyContin-Bucks festoon a possum-playing Nan Goldin at an anti-Sackler protest.

One of my favorite parts of every Academy Awards season is the AMPAS-approved list of documentary recommendations (i.e., the Best Documentary Feature nominations), which for casual dabblers like me helps triage the 12,000 nonfiction productions released through streamers over the past year, at least 11,900 of which were slapped together with all the ethics and dignity of Tiger King. Sometimes I’m familiar with the subject at hand but appreciate a fresh take. Sometimes they’re an educational experience for me as relative ignoramus. And sometimes, as with the case of Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I walk unprepared into a world wildly distant from my own, and yet I come out cheering.

(Well, “walk” might be an understatement in this case: my son and I sprinted to catch the penultimate showing of this film at one of our local indie cinemas before it vanished from Indianapolis altogether. Expect it on home video in the near future, but in many locales it may be challenging to fill in its blank on your Oscar scorecard before the ceremony.)

The trailer and the capsule descriptions on most movie-ticketing sites emphasized the most relatable part: watch a single woman take on an evil corporation! See the nefarious Sackler family and their misbegotten zillion-dollar company held accountable for the horrors of OxyContin! Feel a surge of justice and/or vengeance as hundreds of thousands killed by drug addiction are remembered in the name of a righteous crusade! These things do occur, so it’s still cool to wear your “BIG PHARMA SUCKS” giant foam middle finger while you watch, but over half the film focuses on the anti-Sackler movement’s leader, one Nan Goldin, and the crucible that forged such a firebrand.

Going in, I was totally unaware of Goldin’s storied career as a gallery-level photographer whose most renowned works were, in modern parlance, rather proudly beyond NSFW, rife with imagery drawn from the Lower Manhattan art-scene counterculture intersections where she spent her young-adulthood. Goldin’s escape to New York took her away from a repressive childhood home (she stops short of mentioning “abuse” per se) and the trauma of her sister’s suicide at 18, which she saw as a reaction to that environment. The film dives into that experience as well as her subsequent years as a visually expressive, defiantly unfettered spokesperson on behalf of that section of society and the largely unbreakable circle of friends who welcomed her and vice versa.

As a Midwest bumpkin and prude, much of that world is alien to me, putting it mildly. We glimpsed cross-sections of it last year at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, though eagle-eyed readers familiar with his work may have noticed we neither photographed nor posted nor admitted we were even in the same room as some of the, er, more charged exhibits and pieces. To an extent I’ve felt that vibe resonating in the Sonic Youth back catalog, in some of the kids I knew in high school or worked with in fast food, and in Sid and Nancy and other punk-entrenched flicks, not to mention their sanitized-suburbanite counterparts like Dudes and SLC Punk. Having never taken a single illegal drug in my life (unless you count Vivarin, which might be forbidden among Mennonites or in that Footloose town), in that world even narcs fresh out of police academy would look at me like, “You don’t belong here.”

(Similar tangent: there was something….I dunno, surreal? is that the word? about watching excerpts from Goldin’s explicit slideshows and albums among an audience of a dozen where my son and I were the only male-identifying members.)

But being there for her NYC found-family and her career had its hazards. For the first time publicly she talks here about the ex who battered her. She also vividly recounts the AIDS crisis and the numerous loved ones she helplessly watched waste away and die. The “Silence = Death” protests became a unifying clarion call for those left behind. Activism and bold speech were deeply ingrained in Goldin’s work well before the 20th century crawled off into the sunset.

Then came a new crisis on the same finite Earth: opioids. Though she’d been to rehab in the past, arguably her worst drug experience came in middle age when she was given an oxycodone prescription after hand surgery, stuck to the doctor’s precise 3-pills-a-day limit, but wound up addicted anyway and going to extremes to cop still more after she was cut off. That harrowing part of her journey and the consequences made it deeply personal. Whereas there was no good way for anyone to vow revenge on the inventor of AIDS, this was a different story: oxycodone had an inventor and purveyor — Purdue Pharma. Sure, they were massive, but they were someone who could be held accountable and, Lord willing, punished for pretending they had no inkling of its disastrously addictive power that’s led to hundreds of thousands dead and counting.

As the trailer promised, the film’s alternating present-day segments let us follow that quest, with Goldin as its frontwoman and her advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now as her crusaders. The Sackler family, Purdue Pharma’s majority owners, were among the world’s richest art patrons and invested a sizable fraction of their billions in dozens of museums worldwide. Phase One of the P.A.I.N. plan was to stage protests (or “actions”, as they prefer to call them, which is shorter and therefore doesn’t set off my euphemism sensitivity) at some of those museums to convince their boards to stop accepting Sackler money. The filmmakers follow Our Heroes to such renowned institutions as the Met (which we’ve been to! I recognized the very gallery!), the Guggenheim (enthusiastically ditto!), the Louvre (if only), and many more. Once that eventually achieved some desired results, Phase Two was to convince those same museums to remove the Sackler name from its expensively embossed display spaces.

Goldin’s life has been marked by more than her share of hardships, but living through them against the odds made her the perfect volunteer for the nigh-impossible job of sacking the Sacklers. Near the end of All the Beauty we witness attempted reconnection to where it all began. Goldin’s still-living parents are invited into the frame, albeit with no incendiary cross-examination that a lesser documentarian might’ve gotcha’d them with. At their last living daughter’s request they also turn over all the late sister’s files. One note among them provides the film’s title, and a few others misspell the family name as “Golden”, which created a different sort of weirdness for me. Those files provide some answers, raise a few questions, but may serve as Goldin’s best reward in her part to bring an end to the OxyContin bloodshed.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: This section usually doesn’t apply to documentaries, but I was surprised — and yet not surprised — to recognize one face among Goldin’s photo subjects: the distinctively silver-haired indie writer/director Jim Jarmusch (last seen on screens with 2019’s The Dead Don’t Die), very much an artist and personality of the same NYC scene.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the All the Beauty and the Bloodshed end credits, though there’s an In Memoriam section for Goldin’s departed friends and acquaintances featured in the film. The music section also confirms one of her slideshows is named after a tune called “The Ballad of Dependency” from a 1954 Off-Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. The song, new for that production, was written and performed by none other than Charlotte Rae, the future Mrs. Edna Garrett from TV’s The Facts of Life, a show which also frowned upon the keeping of secrets.

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