All the Beauty and the Bloodshed starts with the death of photographer Nan Goldin’s beloved older sister, Barbara, whose suicide sent shockwaves through Goldin’s family, life, and art. While it might not always be clear how these things tie back to this event, Goldin tells us through voiceover how they all relate. Part autobiography and part documentary on the Sackler family and its direct involvement in the opioid epidemic in America, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed offers a multitude of histories and secrets. When we aren’t with Goldin in the current day as she fights with her organization, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), to hold the Sackler family accountable for their actions, we are looking into the past with her photos providing a roadmap of her story. While it might seem odd to combine these two very different parts of her life, it begins making more sense as the film dives deeper into who Nan Goldin is and how she came to found P.A.I.N.
Her family story is full of fractures and strains in adolescence as after the death of her sister she was shuttled and thrown out of many different homes and schools. Her escape from it all–or her way of making sense of it–was through photography. She’s not in all her photos, but her friends and the people she loved and cared for are in much of her earliest work. The LGBTQ+ communities she became a part of as a young artist also shaped so much of her relationship to photography. Her art and her life are so enmeshed together that it’s almost like a diary we’re seeing. We follow her through the drag scene, to life as a bartender, to her portraits of her friends who suffered and died of AIDS.
As we see Goldin recount the crisis and personal devastation of the AIDS epidemic, we are also treated to her own rebellion during it. She plans an art exhibition during the height of the epidemic to give voice to these artists dying from the disease and members of the LGBTQ+ community who are dealing daily with this national tragedy. The exhibition draws criticism and fights about censorship, but most importantly it draws visibility. Art for Goldin is revealed as not only a tool for memory and voice, but also a means of action, discourse, and activism. Bringing us back to the current day, art is in some form still a way she uses to drive a point home and to be heard. We’re privy to some of the P.A.I.N. meetings in the film and during them we often see members of the group hash out details of their protests with Goldin providing input on which visual will be the most impactful.
Her life, her photos, her stories reveal someone who has been through it all. There are moments of euphoria you can feel through the screen and bleakness so dark it is nearly suffocating. No matter the feeling or the subject matter, she shares it all, letting us in. It is no wonder that her group seems to attract such an eclectic mix of individuals; part of it is because of the prevalence of opioid addiction and awareness, sure, but it is also due to Goldin. Some of her photos can be shocking, and it’s shocking to think people consented to them too. But then you really get to see her, the way she operates, and you understand why someone would lower their boundaries and let her take their photos. She is not ashamed of her past, the things she’s done, or the people she’s loved and lost. She accepts people as they are, embracing the unknown without hesitation and with refreshing ease.
Her photo slideshows became a hallmark of her work, and often go through many iterations. She may have the same name for a series, but the arrangement of images is different, the music accompanying them is different, and even the images themselves are different almost every time. Her opinions and her thoughts on themes change and so with them the product, the slideshow, readjusts. We often think of art as set in time and place; even the idea of a completed art piece indicates rigidity or staticism . In Goldin’s work, however, the art grows with the artist, with some slideshows spanning over twenty years or more of content. Goldin isn’t immutable and isn’t disengaged with anything as it pertains to her art and her activism. The film allows us as an audience to see this in full effect: a woman unwilling to compromise or be silenced for what she believes is right. Nan Goldin is a prolific artist and staunch supporter of justice, but more than that, the role that bleeds into everything she does is her role as a rebel to the established world order.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories. She’s currently pursuing a Masters degree at IU’s Luddy School and is an IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Fellow.