How Nan Goldin took on the Sacklers and changed history

How Nan Goldin took on the Sacklers and changed history
Filmmaker Laura Poitras discusses her new documentary which traces the remarkable life of the artist-activist and the impact of her battle against the US opioid crisis.

Nan Goldin’s work is often described as cinematic because it tells stories. But it strikes me as I watch her images click seductively in a slideshow before me that they are cinematic because they are not even still at all. Each frame vibrates with an electrifying and unpredictable tension that has defined her work over the last 50 years. A chemical reaction between pain and beauty that results in the illusion of motion. The effect is staggering. 

I’m watching All The Beauty and The Bloodshed – a new documentary about Goldin directed by the formidable journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. All The Beauty and The Bloodshed comes much hyped, recently winning the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and receiving a nomination for best documentary at the 2023 Academy Awards. But it is not really what I expected at all. I knew the film focused on Goldin’s activism around the opioid crisis, but what Poitras has artfully constructed is a dance between the difficult story of Goldin’s life, the sheer velocity of her work, and the courageous struggles of her activism. It is harrowing, heartbreaking, outrageous, compelling and life-affirming in equal measure. 

“Her work is ravishing. But it doesn’t come easily,” says Poitras, sitting in the Soho Hotel in London in October while on the press tour for the film. “She makes a decision to reveal things with both the belief that it hopefully can resonate with others that maybe have experienced similar things, to destigmatise issues, and to shift shame… People feel the pain that she reveals, and not just pain but vulnerability, and the beauty.”

The beauty in Goldin’s work is often born from pain. Born in the Boston suburbs of the 1950s, she has documented her own pain – the trauma triggered intially by the railway-tracks suicide of her 16-year-old sister when Goldin was just 11 – and the pain of her community – a chosen family of transgressive misfits and runaways living on the edge of society and at the extremes of the human experience.

These deeply personal and revealing collections of images – such as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), which her father and abusive ex partner fought, and failed, to censor; The Golden Years (1995); and I’ll Be Your Mirror (1996) – shook the art world open and demanded fierce empathy for the vulnerable subjects at their core. Of which Goldin is always one.

“There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party,” says Goldin in The Ballad of Seuxal Dependency (the artist’s book publication of photographs). “But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.”

Together, Goldin and Poitras navigate some of the most difficult parts of the human experience – depression, self harm, domestic violence, poverty, addiction, exploitation, corruption and abuse – with honesty and tenderness. It’s a hard watch in many parts, but it is also one of the most compassionate films I have seen in a long time. “We created a structure where she and I would meet at her place, usually on the weekends, and she would have the opportunity later to listen and see if there was anything too intense too emotional, too personal,” says Poitras. “And so that gave both of us – it was a dialogue – a freedom to speak freely knowing we could step back from the process. And she’s very much a collaborator in the film. She’s a producer on the film. I consider her the cinematographer of the film.” 

Goldin founded activist organisation P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017 while recovering from a fentanyl overdose that very nearly killed her. She was horrified about the Sackler family’s involvement in the opioid crisis through after reading Patrick Reeden Keefe’s 2017 New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”, and hated the status they had in the art world, where their name was on wings of all the major cultural institutions in the West.

There is now much more awareness about the Sacklers and their role in the opioid crisis largely thanks to the journalists who have worked tirelessly to expose them; the work of Goldin and P.A.I.N; and television portrayals like Dopesick, which tells the story of the human cost behind the abhorrent corruption that allowed Purdue Pharma – owned by the Sacklers – to push a gravely addictive drug Oxycontin across America with little to no resistance.

Over 565,000 people have died of opioid overdoses since Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin – a strong, slow release opioid with horrifically addictive properties – in 1996. It was aggressively marketed as safe and non addictive, which is not true. It became hugely popular on the black market and, quickly, hugely expensive, forcing addicts to try other opioids. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers. Purdue has never accepted responsibility, maintaining that OxyContin overdoses are a matter of individual responsibility, rather than the drug’s addictive properties. And it has reportedly generated some 35 billion dollars in revenue for Purdue.

The injustices go on and on and on – and the bodies continue to pile up. People who suffer most are often impoverished, without access to alternative therapies, usually having worked hard and industrial jobs, who suffer with pain and need help. The most vulnerable people in society are exploited by the most privileged. These are the types of people Goldin has always wished to give a voice to. 

Although photography has been Goldin’s primary medium – “Photography was always a way to walk through fear,” she has said – it is compassion for people that has moved Goldin to challenge power and represent the underrepresented.

“Personally I don’t think you can make any art in society that doesn’t have a political component,” says Poitras, who was approached by Goldin to create the film having documented the protests and behind-the-scenes progress of P.A.I.N for some time. “It doesn’t mean that the topics or themes have to be political but we don’t make work in vacuums, we make work in context – a historical, political context. And so the fact that Goldin’s work – that is so deeply personal – also has become either a controversy or moved into an activist space seems somewhat consistent with just being alive as an artist.

“I love the fact that she used her power as an artist to stage these protests. I would encourage more artists to use the power they have to call into question institutions of the society that we live in.”

The protests of P.A.I.N include throwing empty oxycontin bottles into the water of the Temple of Dendur at the Met; a cascade of prescriptions like falling snow through the epic inner sanctum of the Guggenheim; and a ‘die in’ across the marble floors of the V&A – all institutions that had been accepting generous donations from the Sacklers. P.A.I.N has achieved great things, but at great risk to Goldin and her team.

“It was scary for her,” says Poitras. “The risks were real. The Sackler family have unlimited resources. They have armies of lawyers, private investigators… And they can intimidate people and make people’s lives really scary.” This is something the documentary really brings to life. It’s easy to overlook the personal repercussions and bravery that comes from the people who are part of that story. Goldin. Her team. Poitras. How do you keep making work that puts you in that position?

“I’m inspired by the risks that others take,” says Poitras. “I think about Ed Snowden or Nan – they took these leaps with no safety nets and I feel like it’s such a privilege that I can be trusted to tell those stories.”

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras at the premier of her film “Citizenfour” about Edward Snowdon, in San Francisco, October 21, 2014.

How effective does Poitras think Goldin’s personal activism has been in changing the narrative around the Sacklers? “[Goldin and P.A.I.N] crystallised something that journalists had been trying to raise alarm bells about for decades,” says Poitras. “So I think it’s really important, but I think Nan would be the first to say there has been no justice here. Yes, it’s a victory to take those names down and shame this family… On the other hand it doesn’t create any structural change. They walk away with no criminal charges, none of the individual Sacklers had to file for bankruptcy, they siphoned all the money out of the company.”

P.A.I.N is not just committed to working in cultural spaces but is now shifting their focus and influence to harm reduction. “For Nan that’s so essential,” says Poitras. “When she talks about her own addiction, she does it so that hopefully it will help others to destigmatise, to take any sense of shame away from the equation, or to shift the shame towards the companies that are responsible instead of the people who are victims.”

As for the legacy of the documentary, Poitras is hopeful that the film will make a positive impact. “The documentary is about the specifics but I hope it’s a bit more universal as well – that it says something about the power and meaning of art to create change or to reach people – or activism,” says Poitras. “I hope that the film reaches people in that way and makes people think. What is the world that we live in and what can we do if we want to change it? I hope it changes people in that way.”

All The Beauty and The Bloodshed is out in cinemas now. 

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