PHOTOGRAPHER Jim Goldberg spent more than seven years examining and sharing the lives of runaway and "throwaway" children on the streets of Hollywood and San Francisco. Often he was hassled by the authorities, who suspected Goldberg of being one of the perverts who exploit street kids. Always he was in danger from the children themselves as they ricocheted randomly through a grubby and violent world of drugs, disease and desperation.

The bitter fruits of Goldberg's effort are on view in a traveling exhibition called "Raised by Wolves," now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It includes some 170 objects, from still photographs and videos to graffiti, mementos, found objects and scrawled statements from the children themselves.

The show is inescapably sad, of course. But it also is sadly unsatisfying. Goldberg uses the conventions but not the disciplines of the documentary, and he has the attitude but not the eye of the artist. The result is a potpourri of surreal vignettes of real children that only superficially engages either the heart or the mind.

Goldberg, now 42, and his curator/collaborator, the Corcoran's Philip Brookman, are up-front about the methodology -- or lack thereof. " Raised by Wolves' is in some ways a work of fiction," Brookman said at an exhibition preview. "In a sense it's a made-up story, not what we could say is an accurate depiction of what Jim's experienced."

"Most of these kids make up stories about their lives," Goldberg said, "and that becomes their reality."

Thus we hear from "Tweeky Dave," who was perhaps 16 when Goldberg met him in Hollywood. "My mom was a 15-year-old junkie slut who I ain't never seen," Dave says, in what is said to be a reproduction of his own handwriting. "My old man is a biker from hell. The f -- -ed-up a -- hole shot me in the gut when I was 12 years old. Ain't gone home since or had one." As evidence Dave lifts his shirt and shows an ugly scar where his navel should have been.

Dave's story is one of the two main threads of Goldberg's docuwhatever, whose confusing cast includes 104 children, parents, pimps, johns, cops, social workers and so on. The other is the narrative of "Echo," a runaway at 13, whom Dave professes to love and pursues, pathetically, pathologically and without success, through most of the story. The tale is told mainly in Dave's words, which are, like his life, dreary, filthy and boring.

Eventually Dave dies of liver disease and general self-abuse. Only then does Goldberg discover that the boy had a twin sister and kind, loving adoptive parents who did everything they could for him. The horrific scar had resulted from surgery to correct birth defects. This denouement should be dramatic, but it just feels like another of Dave's cheap tricks. He is hard to mourn.

Echo, after years of prostitution and almost constant use of any and all kinds of drugs, finally gathers her wits and her two babies and goes home to her mother, who surely qualifies as a saint for her tireless efforts to rescue her daughter and her patient endurance of Echo's contempt and deceit.

Goldberg himself deserves respect and sympathy for his good-hearted persistence in chronicling this continuing wasting of young people's lives. He is almost superhumanly nonjudgmental and empathetic. But by declining to impose himself upon his subjects he fails to make sense of his subject, either artistically or journalistically. Because his work resembles the photojournalistic style of a Mary Ellen Mark -- and because the show includes the trappings of a museum exhibit (videos, artifacts) -- we can be forgiven for thinking that Goldberg has created a work of fact. But he admits -- he asserts -- that he knows little about the truthfulness of their stories, or how the children ended up on the street, or how to get them off.

Goldberg's photography, even allowing for the difficult circumstances under which he worked, is not compelling. His refusal to take any responsibility for the truth of what he presents further diminishes his credibility and impact. By largely letting the children tell their own stories -- which are generally incoherent, if not outright lies -- Goldberg deprives us of whatever useful insights may have resulted from his decade of effort. Neither documentary nor art, the exhibition is almost as much of a jumble as the lives of the children he shows us. RAISED BY WOLVES: Photographs and Documents of Runaways by Jim Goldberg. Through Nov. 19 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. 202/638-3211. Open 10 to 5 Friday through Monday and Wednesday and till 9 Thursdays. Suggested donation: adults $3, students and seniors $1, families $5. Metro: Farragut West. Wheelchair accessible.

Programs related to "Raised by Wolves" will be presented at the Corcoran and the American Film Institute. For information about a series of lectures, workshops, forums and performances at the Corcoran, call 202/638-3211, ext. 328. For a schedule of screenings of feature films and documentaries at the Kennedy Center, call AFI at 202/828-4091. CAPTION: "Slamming Alcohol," a 1989 gelatin silver print by Jim Goldberg.