A few years ago – under the watchful eye of award-winning director Laura Poitras – artist Nan Goldin took on a clan of pharmaceutical billionaires in a campaign that was powerful, clever and visually stunning. But be warned, the best documentary of the year will leave you emotionally shattered.
Poitras is best known for Citizenfour, about whistleblower Edward Snowden going head to head with the US government. Goldin stands up to the Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma company developed and profited from the US opioid crisis. The enormous wealth they accumulated allowed various branches of the family to spend millions of dollars on art and thus be considered great supporters of culture.
As in Citizenfour, the tension is generated by the fact that influential people and institutions will go to great lengths to protect their reputations. The stakes are very high.
But what makes the film really special is the way Poitras weaves Goldin’s story into the mix, going from her own three-year addiction to OxyContin to picking up on the details of the tragedies surrounding Barbara Goldin, her older sister, and her two best friends, David Wojnarowicz and Cookie Mueller. She wears her fury that they have disappeared on her sleeve.
The plot twists when we meet Goldin’s parents. Lillian and Hyman are so frail they’re almost transparent. And when they talk about Barbara, they break up very quietly. Witnessing is shocking. Both seem to feel the weight of what has been lost, which only makes the sequence involving the three members of the Sacklers facing the devastation wrought by Purdue Pharma even more harrowing.
Even if you know nothing about Goldin’s groundbreaking photography and slideshows, you’ll be mesmerized by her gravelly voice, all-seeing expression, and curly red hair (if she were ever to be the subject of a biopic, Alia Shawkat would be a great young Nan and please, please let Frances McDormand be cast as middle-aged Nan). In a word, she is a born movie star.
Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, who has written about the Sacklers for years, admits that when he first met Goldin, he treated her condescendingly. The Sacklers themselves certainly underestimated it. Now there is no such danger. Goldin, one of the world’s most angry old women, has revealed herself as a giant slayer. This complicated film explains who and what he fights for.
117 minutes, cert 18
In cinemas from Friday