All the Beauty and the Bloodshed review: Nan Goldin documentary will leave you emotionally wrecked

Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed ( )
Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed ( )

A few years ago – under the watchful eye of award-winning director Laura Poitras – artist Nan Goldin took on a clan of pharma billionaires in a campaign that was hard-hitting, nifty and visually dazzling. But, be warned, the best documentary of the year will leave you feeling emotionally wrecked.

Poitras is best known for Citizenfour, about the whistleblower Edward Snowden who went head to head with the US government. Goldin is up against the Sackler family, whose company, Purdue Pharma, engineered and profited from America’s opioid crisis. The vast wealth they accrued allowed the branches of the family involved in the company to spend millions on the arts, including in London, and thus elevate their status as great supporters of culture.

As in Citizenfour, tension is generated by the fact that powerful people, and institutions, will go to great lengths to protect their reputations. There is a lot at stake.

But what makes the film truly special is the way Poitras weaves Goldin’s story into the mix, moving from her own three-year addiction to OxyContin, to piercingtogether details about the tragedies surrounding Barbara Goldin, her big sister, as well as her two best friends, David Wojnarowicz and Cookie Mueller. She wears her fury that they’re gone on her sleeve.

A twist in the tale comes when we meet Goldin’s parents. Lillian and Hyman are so frail they’re practically translucent. And, when they discuss Barbara, they very quietly go to pieces. It’s shattering to witness. Both seem to feel the weight of what’s been lost, which only makes the sequence involving three members of the Sacklers, faced with the devastation Purdue Pharma has caused, more jolting.

Even if you know nothing about Goldin’s groundbreaking photographs and slide shows you’ll be mesmerised by her gravelly voice, seen-it-all mien and curly red hair (if she’s ever the subject of a biopic, Alia Shawkat would make a great young Nan and, please please please, let Frances McDormand be cast as Nan’s middle-aged self). In a word, she’s a natural born film star.

Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, who’s been writing about the Sacklers for years, admits that, when he first met Goldin, he patronised her. The Sacklers themselves surely underestimated her, too. There’s no danger of that happening now. Goldin, one of the angriest women on the planet, has outed herself as a giant slayer. This complicated movie explains who, and what, she’s fighting for.

117mins, cert 18

In cinemas from Friday