The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nan Goldin, through the lens of her own art and activism

In ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ documentarian Laura Poitras presents a compelling, if one-sided, portrait of the photographer

Nan Goldin, left, with her roommate Bea in one of the photographer’s images from the 1970s, is the subject of the documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” (Neon)
(3 stars)

When accused of making voyeuristic images, Nan Goldin has responded that she’s actually part of the subcultures she depicts, not an outsider peeping in. Documentarian Laura Poitras doesn’t challenge “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” photographer’s approach in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” The film is an entirely sympathetic account of Goldin’s life, career and recent campaign against the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, who are widely blamed for the devastation caused by the opioid painkiller.

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Poitras is best known for “Citizenfour,” a documentary about Edward Snowden, shot while she was in Hong Kong with the controversial whistleblower as he sought permanent refuge. Poitras is less directly involved in the events recounted in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” but the film certainly isn’t a dispassionate investigation.

Poitras seems to take her cues from Goldin, who’s one of the film’s producers. As the photographer says early in the documentary, “It’s easy to make your life into a story.” There’s as much self-mythology as grungy reality in Goldin’s emblematic pictures of drag queens, drug users, AIDS patients and her own bruised eyes, blackened by an abusive lover.

The film opens in 2018, as Goldin leads a protest in, and against, the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, the photographer stages similar actions elsewhere in New York, and also in Paris and London. (Not on the itinerary is Washington, Goldin’s birthplace, possibly because the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is named for a donor who died in 1987, eight years before OxyContin was introduced.)

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Goldin’s campaign, like her photos, melds the personal and the political. She got hooked on OxyContin in 2014 when prescribed it for wrist pain. After escaping the drug, she founded the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), enlisting people who had kicked OxyContin, as well as others who lost loved ones to it. Goldin then targeted the art world that had initially rejected her work but eventually embraced it.

While the anti-Sackler campaign is the film’s spine, Poitras delves into the rest of her subject’s life, which is defined to a large degree by trauma and loss. The first major shock was the suicide of her older sister, who at 18 placed herself in the path of a train in suburban Maryland. The photographer eventually gets her sister’s psychiatric records, which are the source of the film’s title. The documents are just as hard on the girls’ mother as Goldin herself is.

As a teenager, Goldin lived in the Boston area and began photographing drag performers. She developed friendships and sometimes romances with both men and women. She then moved to New York’s Lower East Side, where the punk-era party was scourged by heroin and AIDS. Decades later, Goldin would confront the Sacklers with tactics that recall the group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

Poitras uses many of Goldin’s radically candid, harshly colorful photos to evoke the 1970s and 1980s, and also includes clips of the photographer’s acting roles in low-tech, no-budget movies. Goldin’s reminiscences, heard in voice-over, mingle with snippets of brooding songs by such New York rockers as the Velvet Underground, Suicide and the Bush Tetras. These may not be Goldin’s personal picks, but the photographer has cited the Velvets among the things that drew her to New York.

That’s just one of the ways that “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” presents Nan Goldin as seen by Nan Goldin. The film doesn’t have to give equal time to the photographer’s detractors, and it certainly needn’t provide the OxyContin saga as told by members of the Sackler family (who have mostly been silent on the subject anyway). But the documentary would benefit from a few other voices and a wider range of commentary on Goldin’s work, both photographic and societal.

That’s not the movie Poitras and Goldin wanted to make, however. And the story they do tell is compelling and distinctive. Viewers who might prefer a less insular perspective will have to accept that wide-angle shots are just not Goldin’s style.

Unrated. At the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Bryant Street. Contains coarse language and images of drug use, battered women, nudity and explicit sexual situations. 117 minutes.