People are still making massive leaps quickly with paid links; I've seen it (and I've been shown some results by some of the people who do it) I think you can still rise to the top pretty quickly if you know what you're doing.
Staying at the top is a whole different matter. If you continue to acquire massive amounts of links quickly, you're going to eventually trip an alarm at Google, and if you don't, you'll likely sink like a stone.
By the time it's all said and done, you're probably spending as much time (and maybe more money) doing it the paid link way than not, with less of chance of a sustained return.
I'm exhausted just thinking about it.