Goldstein was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, moved as a boy to Los Angeles, California and attended high school there in the 1960s. He received his training at Chouinard Art Institute and was a member of the inaugural class of California Institute of the Arts, where he worked in post-studio art under John Baldessari, receiving an MFA in 1972.
A performance artist with roots in minimalist sculpture, a conceptual artist who made experimental films and their audio equivalent on vinyl records, Goldstein divided his time between Los Angeles and New York City during the 1970s. While still a student at CalArts in 1972, he buried himself alive; with a stethoscope attached to his chest, he breathed air from plastic tubes while a red light above ground flashed to the rhythm of his beating heart.
In the early 1970s as audio and video recordings became more accessible to the general public, Goldstein seized the opportunity and began producing his own records, although not ordinary records, among his records were "A Swim Against the Tide", "A Faster Run"(a recording of a stampede), "The Tornado", "Two Wrestling Cats" and "The Six Minute Drown". "The Six Minute Drown" in particular gained traction as the dreary, agonizing sounds of a drowning man reverberate for six minutes in total isolation.
Goldstein eventually became one of the linchpins of the Pictures Group, which gained its first recognition at Artist's Space in New York City in the fall of 1977. During this time, he shared a studio building with James Welling.
The Pictures artists, including Goldstein, Robert Longo, Troy Brauntuch and, initially, Phillip Smith, came to the forefront of the 1980s art boom and flourished to varying degrees as the decade wore on. Goldstein began seriously to make paintings at this time. Eventually he became known for what he referred to as "salon paintings" – those designed both to be sold to the very rich and to secure for the artist a place in art history. Although he was accused by some of "selling out" to a bull market in painting, this tactic appropriated the art star mantle that Goldstein's work always had assumed.
Goldstein began to concentrate on painting in the late 1970s. His paintings were based on photographic images of natural phenomena, science, and technology – the result of Goldstein's intent to record "the spectacular instant," as previously depicted in photography. Many of them depict streaking fighter jets, lightning storms, exploding nebulae and city skylines illuminated by fireworks or bombing raids. Using found photographs, and highlighting the reproduction or copy, Goldstein blew up details to near abstraction and then hired painters to apply them to canvases on boxlike stretchers that stand more than six inches off the wall. He was among the first contemporary painters to hire others to make his works.
By the mid-’70s, Goldstein had stopped appearing in his films and performances and instead hired actors, stuntmen and light and sound technicians from the film industry. His films include the well-known Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (1975), a two-minute loop of the film studio’s roaring lion mascot on a blood red field, and Shane (1975), named for the trained German Shepherd that barks in response to inaudible commands from someone behind the camera.
Most of Goldstein's work revolved around the concept of experience, the concept of grappling with the conflation of experience and our recording of it and to wonder whether documentation has become primary in our experience.
As the 1980s continued and finally fizzled out there was less and less call for "salon paintings" and Goldstein's work sold less well than some others'. Reluctant to teach rather than practice full-time, Goldstein left New York in the early 1990s and returned to California where he lived out the decade in relative isolation.
His early work was revived at the turn of the century and he resurfaced briefly to some renewed acclaim. He was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial as a major film influence alongside Stan Brakhage, less than a year after he committed suicide by hanging himself in San Bernardino, California on March 14, 2003.
Goldstein may be remembered for a certain conceptual/representational approach to picturemaking that helped shape a generation of artists and beyond, even though they might not even be aware of him.
Goldstein compiled an extensive exhibition record during his productive years. Even after he stopped painting and moved back to Southern California, museums continued to exhibit his work. In 2002, a show of his films and performances was presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and retrospectives were staged at the National Center of Contemporary Art in Grenoble, France, and the Luckman Gallery at California State University, Los Angeles. A large-scale retrospective was originally scheduled for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles but was canceled in 2010 by its then-director, Jeffrey Deitch; it was instead shown at the Orange County Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum in New York in 2013.
The artist was represented by 1301PE, Los Angeles.