“Nan in the bathroom with roommate, Boston,” a photograph by Nan Goldin

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a story of personal revenge and anti-corporate activism combined with an artist’s life and work.

It shows how artist Nan Goldin took on the Sackler family pharma billionaires and—at least in some ways—she won.

The documentary film begins as activists assemble for a die‑in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It instantly reflects that feeling of stomach-churning nervousness before some big and edgy action.  

As security guards prowl around, the protesters start to chant, “100,000 dead”, “Temple of money, temple of greed”, “Sacklers lie, people die”, and “Sacklers knew their pills would kill”. Then they lie down.

The Sackler family’s company, Purdue Pharma, profited from the US opioid crisis. The enormous wealth they harvested allowed them to spend millions on the arts. The art world embraced them as great supporters of culture.

Before taking on the Sacklers, Goldin was known for photography and slide-show projects such as exploring the world of Boston’s drag queens. 

Director Laura Poitras places Goldin’s personal story into the wider context. Goldin was prescribed OxyContin for pain relief and became addicted to the drug almost immediately. 

Back in the 1980s, Goldin told the Guardian newspaper, it had taken her a long time to become a heroin addict. But with OxyContin, she was hooked in 48 hours and, within two weeks, was taking 15 pills a day. 

It was while in recovery that she first began to wake up to the scale of the problem. Between 1999 and 2017, 200,000 deaths occurred from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription opioids. As Goldin moved to expose the Sackers, around 145 people were dying every day from opioid overdoses. 

She set up the campaigning organisation Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (Pain) partly to reveal the sordid source of the Sackler’s wealth. Eventually, through dogged and confrontational action, Pain forced galleries such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim to drop the Sackler name.

London’s Tate Modern took £4 million from the Sacklers. Its central escalators were named after the family.

Goldin threatened that if Tate’s management didn’t break the Sackler connection, she would create chaos. The plan involved throwing thousands of fake prescriptions for OxyContin, like confetti, and showering the space with fake pill bottles. There would also have been “a banner drop into the turbine hall”, she said. 

The Tate gave in. Some institutions were slower. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum held out for as long as it could before conceding, “I was so happy about that,” says Goldin, “because it looked like they were never going to do the right thing.”

Goldin never had many illusions about the art world sponsors. “If you scratch the skin of any billionaire, there are usually bodies behind their money. I mean, name one ethical billionaire? It’s hard to. And the boards are still full of those people,” she says.

“There is no accountability for rich people. All these billionaires are protected by huge legal teams, and they pump money into the state and Congress so that laws don’t get changed. Doesn’t matter who is in power, Republicans or Democrats, America is totally broken and it’s scary.”

There’s a wrenching scene in the film where Goldin and other campaigners crowd around a screen to watch a federal court proceeding in which board members Theresa and David Sackler listen to the testimonies of those who have lost loved ones to OxyContin. 

“I am one of the survivors of your monumental greed,” says one man. “I hope that every single victim’s face haunts your every waking moment, and your sleeping ones too.”

The tape is followed by parents’ video testimonies. One man who lost his child concludes, “I want to point out to the Sacklers that, by the time this two-hour hearing is over, you can add 16 more people to your death list.”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is available on BBC iPlayer

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