All the Beauty and the Bloodshed review – Nan Goldin’s gripping takedown of the Sackler pharma family

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

A groundbreaking artist who turned the lens on her own life, who documented the fabulous, fragile, nocturnal world of Boston’s drag queens, who gravitated towards the fringes of society, who rocked the art world when she curated a show about Aids, who supported her photography with a stint as a sex worker: Nan Goldin is a fascinating subject for a documentary even before she declared war on one of the most powerful families in the US. But what elevates this gripping, Oscar-nominated documentary by Laura Poitras (already an Oscar winner for the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour) is the deft meshing together of Goldin’s biographical and creative history with details of her crusade against the Sackler family, art world philanthropists and the pharma billionaires behind OxyContin and, by extension, the opioid crisis.

Related: Artist Nan Goldin on addiction and taking on the Sackler dynasty: ‘I wanted to tell my truth’

Goldin herself was prescribed OxyContin for pain relief and, she says with the laconic candour that is evident throughout the film, she became addicted to the drug almost immediately. She founded the advocacy organisation Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in part to challenge the “reputation laundering” of the Sackler name through hefty donations to museums and galleries. It’s a stirring, courageous act from a woman who has more to lose than most by squaring up to the art world. Poitras gives the footage of Goldin’s protests and covert meetings a nervy tension that wouldn’t be out of place in a political thriller. What becomes clear from the film, which vividly details the cultural backdrop as well as Goldin’s work, is that fear has never been part of Goldin’s vocabulary, either creatively or personally.