What happens when unimaginable wealth meets unscrupulous politics?
Anyone interested in the question would do well to follow the proceedings of a four-month trial that is currently under way in Paris.
Disarmingly frank: Loik Le Floch-Prigent
The so-called Elf trial has gone largely unreported because of its very length and the mind-numbing detail of much of the evidence.
But for those patient enough to watch, it provides a fascinating insight into the moral vacuum that existed at the heart of France just 10 years ago.
The three men who ran the then state-owned oil firm Elf-Aquitaine in the early 1990s - chief executive Loik Le Floch-Prigent, his "general affairs manager" Alfred Sirven and the company's Mr Africa Andre Tarallo - are accused of raking off hundreds of millions of dollars of company money.
Illicit money machine
But the interest lies less in their personal enrichment than in the extraordinary mixture of secret accounts, bribes, personal favours and political influence-buying that was not just tolerated, but officially sanctioned by successive French governments.
If the money sometimes ended up in an orphanage then I am very happy - but let's say it didn't always end up in an orphanage
Billions passed through this complex and illicit money machine.
What the defendants creamed off was just a tiny percentage.
At the heart of the system was Elf's Africa connection.
With at times disarming frankness, the three men have spoken out for the first time about how French state assets - tax-payers' money in other words - was sprayed around the continent.
"Clearly in most petrol-producing countries it is the head of state or king who is the real beneficiary," Le Floch-Prigent said.
"The Elf system had been at the heart of the French state for years. It was not so much secret as opaque.
Alfred Sirven ran Elf's collection of Swiss bank accounts
"The president of the republic (Francois Mitterrand at the time) didn't want anyone to say, 'Elf is giving money to Cameroon.'
"So the money went to the names that the heads of these countries designated. If it sometimes ended up in an orphanage then I am very happy. But let's say it didn't always end up in an orphanage."
Countries mentioned in the investigation include Cameroon, Gabon, Angola and Congo - though no criminal charges have been brought against the countries' leaders, who all deny wrong-doing.
The Elf money that the French state used to buy influence and contacts in Africa passed through a host of interlocking bank accounts in Switzerland, which were masterminded by Sirven.
These were given code-names like Tomato, Othello, Bonifacio, Mineral and Salad, and their titular holders were often third parties, many of whom figure among the 34 other accused in the trial.
This week for example a former member of the European parliament, Yves Verwaerde - who acted as a lobbyist for the late Angolan opposition leader Jonas Savimbi - told the court how he was approached by Sirven, who wanted to keep a line open to Savimbi's Unita rebels in case they came to power one day.
Elf was an enterprise which distorted the sense of reality
Mr Verwaerde opened account Salad which then received $2m from account Mineral operated by Sirven.
Most of the money went to Savimbi, but Mr Verwaerde also managed to acquire a luxury villa in Ibiza.
Mr Le Floch-Prigent and Mr Sirven have also stated categorically that part of the money sloshing around in Elf's secret funds ended up financing politicians and parties in France - though they have not named names.
Mr Le Floch-Prigent said that when he took over at Elf in 1989 the money principally benefited the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party, but Mitterrand - newly re-elected as Socialist president - "asked me to balance things out so that other parties would profit".
Mitterrand also featured in another revealing episode - Mr Le Floch-Prigent's multi-million-dollar divorce.
It cost tax-payers a lot to buy Fatima Belaid's silence
Realising in 1991 that he could no longer live with his wife, Fatima Belaid - who he believed possessed a number of sensitive secrets about Elf - the accused went to see his political patron at the Elysee palace.
"I told (Mitterrand), 'I am probably going to divorce my wife and that could have repercussions given her character. We made a lot of trips to Africa together and the collateral damage could be significant for the country and Elf'," he told the court.
Mitterrand then refused his offer to resign and instead told him, "You must sort out the problem", which Le Floch-Prigent took as authority to buy his wife's silence with the equivalent of 5m euros in Elf cash.
As the disgraced former chief executive put it: "Elf was an enterprise which distorted the sense of reality."