Photo: Seth Wenig/AP
While the part of the Sackler family behind Purdue Pharma is notorious for the addictive opioid pain reliever OxyContin, which has ruined the lives of countless Americans, the Sackler culture has swept away the huge profits with arrogant museum donations. There was hardly a museum in any first world capital that did not greet their narcissism with a “Sackler wing” or “Sackler courtyard.” Their stories were first told by New Yorker investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe in his book Empire of Pain.
Purdue’s formidable genius lay in marketing, not in science, medicine, or medicine. They were not the inventors of opioids; they existed in a variety of forms, but were long seen as too dangerous for anything but the most extreme pain management or terminal palliative care; Purdue convinced the US medical profession to prescribe them in pill form for much less serious cases. Then the country’s agony of addiction was transformed into the prestige of the art world.
Now filmmaker Laura Poitras approaches this sickening story from the perspective of the Sacklers’ most famous victim and unwitting beneficiary, with a film that won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice film festival. Artist and photographer Nan Goldin has had prestigious works exhibited in many galleries that have received the Sackler dollar. When Goldin became addicted to OxyContin, he plagued galleries including the Guggenheim and the Met with spectacular protests, throwing thousands of fake prescriptions into silent gallery spaces and shoveling dozens of counterfeit medicine bottles into dripping fountains and water features. Protesters faced sinister campaigns of surveillance and intimidation, in which Sacklers denied all information.
Poitras shows that these protests are truly Goldin’s great works of art: his whole life has led to this moment of passionate expression, this inspiring situationist gesture that fuses the personal and the political. OxyContin preyed on the troubled and the vulnerable, and Goldin’s own family history was filled with pain. A depressed older sister took her own life (the title is taken from a medical report reporting her painful words about existence). Goldin herself was a drug addict who survived abuse and recovered. His brilliant and heartbreaking photographs and “slideshows” depicted the world of underground artists and LGBT communities; inspired by the filmmakers and in turn inspired them. Poitras’ film talks about his friendship with John Waters (but oddly enough, not Jim Jarmusch, which is evident in a few shots). Nor does Poitras mention Claire Denis, who dedicated her film Vendredi Soir to Goldin. Much of the ’80s Act Up campaign was documented by Goldin, which inspired the Sackler protests.
Related: Artist Nan Goldin on addiction and the takeover of the Sackler dynasty: ‘I wanted to tell my truth’
His masterpiece has been showcased in galleries around the world: Pain protests. Goldin’s campaign group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, has carried out thrillingly devastating guerrilla-style events that are of course documented on social media. The images he created and broadcast live were convincing: the art of confrontation, the art of protest, the art of autofiction, they all came together in these events; to accept it more or less meekly. It’s kind of a happy ending: but Goldin perhaps shows that there is always more blood spilled than beauty.
• All the Beauty and the Bloodshed opens in UK cinemas on January 27.