All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Dir. by Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras, one of the world’s foremost documentarians, is back with another hard-hitting nonfiction film. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras—winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her reportage on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and an Academy Award for her 2014 film about the same, Citizenfour—chronicles the movement to hold the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma accountable for their role in sparking and sustaining a national opioid epidemic.

Bloodshed, winner of this year’s Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, focuses on the efforts of Nan Goldin, the noted photographer who co-founded the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N. Poitras and three co-editors intricately intertwine the story of Goldin’s anti-OxyContin crusade with the details of her often-difficult private life. These two storylines—the societal and personal, the collective and the individual—develop into a complex and propulsive dialectical dynamic, aided by Poitras’ most ambitious directing work to date and an evocative soundtrack by the Soundwalk Collective.

As Poitras details, the opioid crisis has killed half a million Americans. Goldin blames the Sackler family company, Purdue, which not only manufactured Oxy, the extraordinarily potent and virulently addictive painkiller at the center of this crisis, but aggressively marketed it with deceptive advertising campaigns and lucrative schemes to entice doctors into prescribing it as widely as possible. The Sacklers sought to burnish their family name by becoming modern-day Medicis, lavishly showering support on museums and universities across the U.S. and Europe. Among the institutions that benefited from the Sacklers’ endowments were the Smithsonian, Guggenheim, Louvre, British Museum, Harvard and beyond. In one of the film’s rare oversights, Bloodshed doesn’t pause to consider the tax benefits of such philanthropic largesse.

For Goldin and her fellow P.A.I.N. members, this charity is blood money that turned bribery into, literally, high art. The film opens with the activists staging direct action inside the Sackler Wing of Manhattan’s world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, home of the ancient Roman Egyptian Temple of Dendur. It is a powerful scene: The Goldin-led protest catches museumgoers and guards off guard as P.A.I.N. members toss empty prescription bottles into the Temple of Dendur’s pool and chant anti-Oxy and Sackler slogans. When startled security attempts to remove the disrupters, they launch a “die-in,” suggesting the thousands who have been killed by Oxy and opioid addiction.

Archival footage shows how P.A.I.N.’s strategy was inspired by tactics pioneered during the 1980s by ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to galvanize action by raising public awareness about HIV and government inaction when the Reagan regime wouldn’t even utter the word “AIDS.” Later in Bloodshed P.A.I.N.’s militants rain faux prescription slips down on museumgoers from the Guggenheim’s internal stairway. To drive home their conviction that Sackler donations are a form of blood money, P.A.I.N.’s campaigners also produce bogus dollar bills smeared with bloody red coloring and the words “IN PHARMA WE TRUST” over “OXY,” printed where the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” appears over “ONE” on a real greenback. And to the left of the slogan on the “counterfeit” currency is what appears to be an encircled image of the Guggenheim Museum, instead of a pyramid. These mock dollars were reportedly tossed on the steps of a Westchester County courthouse during the Purdue’s bankruptcy hearing in 2019.

Whether at P.A.I.N.’s New York-based organizing meetings or the group’s confrontational events around the U.S. and Europe, Nan Goldin plays a central role. (She also shares producer credits for Bloodshed). Her participation and leadership position in the anti-Sackler demonstrations was especially vexing to the art world, because as an internationally renowned visual artist, Goldin’s work, such as the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was sometimes exhibited and collected at the same museums and galleries she was protesting, including the Met.

Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin.

Goldin became aware of OxyContin and the painkiller’s dangers in 2014, when it was prescribed to her for tendonitis in the left wrist and she quickly became addicted. Suffering was nothing new for the 69-year-old Goldin, who, as Bloodshed painstakingly chronicles, grew up in a troubled household in suburban Boston. Although only mentioned in passing, Goldin’s mother was repeatedly sexually molested by a relative when she was young. The film spends more time elaborating upon the saga of Nan’s older sister Barbara, who was in and out of institutions before committing suicide in an especially gruesome manner. Poitras makes extensive use of what appears to be home-movie footage, as well as of the pictures Goldin, a prolific photographer, shot over the decades.

Goldin was impacted by the sixties/seventies’ counterculture, and through her freewheeling photography, documented the demi-monde and burgeoning LGBTQ scene largely in New York. Bloodshed brings alive this Bohemian slice of life that Goldin not only artfully captured with her lens, but was herself a part of. Much of her work has a sexual edge, ranging from gay partnering to images of Golden having sexual intercourse with her then boyfriend. In contemporary footage presumably shot by Poitras and intercut with the archival material, Goldin admits publicly for the first time to having been a sex worker.

Against all odds, Goldin and her army of activists win many, if not all, of their demands.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is not one film, but two, artfully melded. It becomes clear that Golden’s often painful personal life, especially the suicide of her beloved older sister, informs her struggle against the Sacklers, who have so immensely enriched themselves by profiteering from manufacturing and marketing a dangerous drug. OxyContin offered immiserated individuals the illusion of surcease from their pain, which would appeal to suffering people like Goldin. Instead, the opioid crisis proved an illusion that caused far more agony than the advertised relief.

Against all odds, Goldin and her army of activists win many, if not all, of their demands. The Sacklers are sacked by the Met, the Louvre, the Serpentine Gallery and others; each refuses their money and deletes the family name from its halls. During bankruptcy proceedings, meanwhile, members of the Sackler family are legally required to listen and watch (albeit virtually) to the outrage expressed by many of their victims, including Goldin, who could properly be called a “survivor.”

Poitras’ first full-length documentary since her 2016 biopic Risk, about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Bloodshed is far more creative aesthetically than her previous work, including 2014’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour. The film does, however, share a common theme with her previous works—that of individuals standing up to and confronting powerful forces. Whether it’s a sophisticated surveillance state, the military-industrial complex, or billion-dollar pharmaceutical firms, Poitras shows us that the high and mighty can be held accountable—and even defeated. In doing so, Poitras—like Nan Goldin—proves that political power can grow out of the barrel of a camera.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is being theatrically released November 23 in New York at the IFC Center, Film at Lincoln Center, and BAM; and on December 2 in Los Angeles at AMC Sunset 5 and in San Francisco at AMC Kabuki 8; and on December 9 in additional markets.

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface.  We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig