As a document of political, artistic, and personal history, director Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a searing and unforgettable work of art. Shaped by the life and work of photographer Nan Goldin, the film acts as both a portrait of a singular artist and a searing indictment of the billionaire class. And like the woman at its centre, the gaze here is unflinching, surprising only in how deep it goes—and what is revealed.
As a photographer of the American underground from the 1970s on, Goldin’s artistic legacy is secure. To those unfamiliar, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed could have merely functioned as an exploration of her work, which has long focussed on women, LGBTQ people, and those defiantly outside the mainstream. Poitras doesn’t stop there though, and as per the film’s opening, neither has Goldin. The impetus for the doc is actually the latter’s recent activism against the Sacklers, the shadowy big Pharma family responsible for the opioid crisis that has ravaged the U.S. In detail, we watch as Goldin’s group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), organizes protests and speaks up for those left in the wake of this devastation. Again, that alone could have been the film, marking the crusade to shame the Sacklers’ name from the public sphere. But it is in the historical context, the discussion of past and present within Goldin’s life and times, from which Poitras’ images draw their true power. The result is something of a duet; Goldin’s presence and photography provide the raw material, while Poitras connects the political to the personal with grace and force.
Given the contemporary framing of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras probably didn’t have to pry hard to get Goldin to tell her story, as sensitive as it is. In fact, some of this may not even be new information; you may already know about the Sacklers, Goldin, or the counterculture history of America. The summation is the point here, to see it all at once and understand.