Photo: Seth Wenig/AP
The section of the Sackler family behind Purdue Pharma became known for its addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, which destroyed countless lives in America, while the Sackler culture washed away the resulting colossal profits with presumptuous donations to museums. There was hardly a museum in any First World Capital that did not greet their narcissism with “Sackler’s Wing” or “Sackler’s Court”. Their story was first told in detail by New Yorker investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe in his book Empire of Pain.
Purdue’s terrifying genius lay not in science, pharmaceuticals or medicine – but in marketing. It wasn’t that they invented opioids; they have existed in various forms but have long been considered too dangerous for anyone other than the most extreme pain management or terminal palliative care; Purdue simply convinced the American medical profession to prescribe them in pill form for much less serious cases. Then the agony of the nation’s addiction was again transformed into prestige in the art world.
Now director Laura Poitras, whose film won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, approaches this harrowing story from the point of view of the Sacklers’ most famous victim and unwitting beneficiary. Artist and photographer Nan Goldin has exhibited high-profile work in numerous galleries that won the Sackler Dollar. When she became addicted to OxyContin, Goldin decided to lead a direct action campaign, disrupting galleries including the Guggenheim and the Met with spectacular protests, dumping thousands of fake prescriptions into silenced gallery spaces, and throwing dozens of fake pill bottles into gushing fountains and water features. Protesters faced sinister campaigns of surveillance and intimidation that the Sacklers denied any knowledge of.
Poitras shows that these protests were truly Goldin’s great work of art: her whole life had led to this moment of passionate expression, this inspired situationist gesture that combined the personal with the political. OxyContin preyed on the restless and vulnerable, and Goldin’s family background was fraught with pain. The depressed older sister took her own life (title taken from a medical report that related her painful words about existence). Goldin herself was an abuse survivor and drug addict. Her brilliant and poignantly revealing photography and “slideshows” explored the world of underground artists and the LGBT community; she was inspired by filmmakers and inspired them in turn. The film Poitras is about her friendship with John Waters (but, oddly enough, not Jim Jarmusch, who is clearly visible in many shots). Poitras also makes no mention of Claire Denis, who dedicated her film Vendredi Soir to Goldin. Much of the 1980s Act Up campaign was documented by Goldin, which inspired her Sackler protests.
Related: Artist Nan Goldin On Addiction And Fighting The Sackler Dynasty: ‘I Wanted To Tell My Truth’
Her masterpiece has been unveiled in galleries around the world: the Pain Protests. Goldin’s Prescription Addiction Intervention Now campaign group carried out exciting, subversive guerrilla-style happenings that, of course, were documented on social media. The images she created and disseminated live were fascinating: confrontational art, protest art, autofictional art, all tied together in these events, which greatly embarrassed museums in removing Sackler’s name, and, perhaps more importantly, had pressure on the Sacklers to accept it more or less meekly. It’s sort of a happy ending: but Goldin shows that perhaps there’s always more bloodshed than beauty.
• All Beauty and Bloodshed hits UK cinemas on January 27th.