The Exsanguinations

Nan Goldin wants to pump you up.

It starts with a museum and ends with a home. At the beginning of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras, we see photographer Nan Goldin and other members of the P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) group entering the Temple of Dendur. It is March of 2018, and the name of the Sackler family is still all over the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, the Temple of Dendur is located in the Sackler Wing, or it was on that windy day.

Goldin and a group of activists all younger than her, maybe fifty of them, gather near the shallow indoor pool next to the stone temple. “I’m really nervous,” Goldin says to another activist. After a brief call-and-response of “mic check” with her crew, Goldin starts yelling out, and we hear her words repeated by the P.A.I.N. members as they toss empty prescription bottles (both orange and blue) into the pool.

“Temple of greed!”

“Temple of greed!”

“Temple of Oxy!”

“Temple of Oxy!”

“Sacklers lied!”

“Sacklers lied!”

“Thousands died!”

“Thousands died!”

If you know the Sacklers, there’s a reasonable chance you know them because of Nan Goldin. In late 2021, the Met announced it was taking down their name from seven exhibition spaces—this does not include all of the Sackler plaques in the museum—and refusing any further funding from the family. (Met CEO Dan Weiss told the New York Times that “the Sacklers have been among our most generous supporters.”) Goldin and P.A.I.N. protested at several museums, including the Guggenheim, where the team created a small blizzard of fake prescriptions falling from the top of the circular atrium. At the bottom, P.A.I.N. members lay on the floor, playing dead. The Louvre ditched the Sackler name before the Met, for those keeping score, and before that, so did the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, and the Guggenheim.

That’s a lot. As protests go, in fact, this one was incredibly effective in a short period of time. Goldin did not do this alone. Patrick Radden Keefe’s book about the Sacklers, Empire of Pain, made concrete the story of their conscious decision to let people become addicted to the drugs made by Purdue Pharma (which they own or owned, depending on how you parse the bankruptcy settlement that largely let them off the hook). Margaret Talbot, in The New Yorker, and Christopher Glazek, in Esquire and Artforum, also published stories about the Sacklers. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed won the Golden Lion for best film at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, rare for a documentary. Poitras credited Goldin at the ceremony and has given Goldin the Golden Lion itself. She displays it on her mantelpiece, though she told Artforum’s David Velasco that she thinks of it as “a loan” from Poitras.

This film is not only about the Sacklers vs. Goldin—it is about Goldin’s entire life, which has been intertwined with protest and action and politics even when Goldin herself wasn’t sure that it was. Though I do not know Goldin, her story and this movie have as much overlap with my life as any film I’ve ever seen (other than the weekend when I was convinced I was Totoro himself). I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic who was hooked for twelve years on benzodiazepines, the drug that family patriarch Arthur Sackler pushed in the ’70s. The oft-repeated quote about Sackler’s legacy is mind-blowing because of its content and its source. The Medical Advertising Hall of Fame (yes) wrote in 1998 that “no single individual did more to shape the character of medical advertising than the multi-talented Dr. Arthur Sackler. His seminal contribution was bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing.” All the Beauty and the Bloodshed includes a TV ad from 1998 for OxyContin, urging people to take the drug as prescribed even if it is “perceived as too strong or addictive.” “That is far from actual fact,” the oily TV man says.

Once Valium became controversial, the drug composition was modified very slightly and reintroduced as Xanax. The uproar did not come again. (You can find my piece on this experience by Googling my name and “I Thought I Was Taking Medicine.”) Sackler’s brothers pushed OxyContin, and Goldin wrote about her experience of becoming addicted to that drug for Artforum in 2018: “I went from three pills a day, as prescribed, to eighteen. I got a private endowment and spent it all. Like all opiate addicts, my crippling fear of withdrawal was my guiding force.” When I trained to become a substance abuse counselor in 2019, I met several people recovering from Oxy addictions. One man had broken his leg and gotten Oxy from his doctor. “I lost it all in a year,” he said. All included his wife and his house. He was not looking forward to being a counselor, but he was proud to be two years clean.

I also grew up in the New York that Goldin documented. One of my heroes is the late Cookie Mueller, a writer and actress who embodied my feelings about New Yorkers as a people of deep affection, total skepticism, and true fearlessness. I fell completely in love with the Mueller of my own dreams after I saw Goldin’s photos of her and then started reading her writing in magazines. When Goldin’s slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, became a book in 1986, it sat on a table at St. Mark’s Bookshop for what seemed like years. Photos of Goldin’s own battered face were intertwined with photos of her having sex and of a huge variety of her friends, many of whom seemed to be drinking at the same bars that my friends and I went to. When I was a victim of sexual assault in 2016, I spent a week in LA numbly Googling images from The Ballad and wondering if the police would make fun of me. I never called them.

Poitras deserves every prize she gets for this movie, which quietly delivers every part of Goldin’s story in a way that makes it both her story and everyone’s. When Goldin’s parents try to suppress the story of her sister Barbara’s suicide, Goldin sets off into the world, getting kicked out of schools and eventually finding a cohort that replaces her blood family. She gets her start by photographing her friends, not even sure she is beginning a career.

“My roommates, they were running away from America, and they found each other.”

She is in Boston, living with her friend David Armstrong, who gives her the name Nan. When she shows her friends the photos she’s taken, she tells Poitras, they often say the same thing: “I didn’t know I was that beautiful.” When she moves to New York, she ends up living on the Bowery. “The Bowery was the golden headquarters,” Goldin says. “There were lots of drugs and fucking in the elevator.” She meets Maggie Smith, owner of the Tin Pan Alley bar in Times Square. The bar was fictionalized recently in the HBO series The Deuce, but you can see the real thing, as well as Goldin herself, in a remarkable short scene in Bette Gordon’s 1983 film Variety.

The most striking images of The Ballad are still Goldin’s heavily bruised face. The man who made it that way was named Brian. I remember talking about the book with my first serious girlfriend: “How had they stayed together through all the violence?” But, it turns out, there was only one night of violence, in Berlin. The Poitras movie remakes a huge story from my youth, of this monster named Brian.

Goldin tells us that he was “beautiful” and “very tender.” At first, and then they start fighting. “And I was good at fighting,” Goldin says. When they go to Berlin, more than three years into their relationship, Brian erupts in jealousy and beats her viciously, breaking her eye socket and trashing their room. In a stroke of luck, the slide show itself had been left in the loft where it was shown. It would likely have been destroyed otherwise. “The struggle between autonomy and dependency is the core” of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Goldin says. Both her parents and Brian tried to prevent the book from being printed. They failed.

In a different kind of terror, back in the recent moment, the members of P.A.I.N. are stalked by men in cars, none of them ever tied to Purdue, but the intimidation is taken as such. The terror goes up to its fever pitch for the Zoom meeting where the Sacklers must look at those they harmed. It’s a phenomenal five-minute sequence. An intertitle: “The court orders the Sacklers to witness victim testimonies as a requirement of the bankruptcy deal.” David and Theresa Sackler are visible on Zoom, while Richard is on the phone, wearily checking in. Nan Goldin herself faces them and says, in a brief written statement, that she hopes they will face criminal charges. This section ends with the sounds of a mother screaming on a 911 call, trying to save her son from the overdose that ended up killing him. That mother then faces the Sacklers and tells them how many days it’s been since she made that call.

In the last escalation of pain, Goldin receives psychiatric reports concerning her sister from the ’50s. They are as much about her parents as they are about Barbara: the psychiatrist of record had recommended that her mother, not Barbara, be hospitalized. Whether it’s the Sacklers or Brian or her parents, Goldin has been chasing the abusers who keep walking away over and over. The footage that actually made me squirm in my seat and gasp had nothing to do with the Sacklers—it is footage of Goldin’s parents, nervous and frozen, trying to dance, even, maybe taken in the ’80s. Her mother is repression made solid, a person waltzing herself away from consciousness. Goldin, fully conscious, tells Poitras that they were “not equipped to be parents.”

After her death, Barbara was found with an index card, upon which was a quote from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Her mother mentions this, and Goldin asks her to retrieve the card and read the quote.

“Infinite regrets,” her father says. But that’s not the quote.

“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Take a moment after the movie to pull up a deep and hearty ball of hatred from your gut and spit it into the street for these monsters. Street dealers will die in jail, but the people who engineered it all will suffer nothing worse than the humiliation of their friends seeing this movie. Maybe they’ll hear about their names pulled off some buildings they never visit. Make no mistake—we will not win. The Sacklers will run free, as will their children and their children’s children. What we can do is take care of each other and make spaces, buildings, rooms, and clinics to repair the wounds from the exsanguinations that the rich perform on us every day, for nothing more than their own comfort and enrichment. They’re too poor to think of either the beauty or the bloodshed.

Goldin ends the film by saying that “conformity and denial” and “secrets” can “destroy people.” “My sister’s rebellion was the starting point for my own,” Goldin says. There is no end point in sight.

Sasha Frere-Jones lives near St. Mark’s Place.